Capitalism and colonialism today

14 June 2024
Jordan Humphreys
A protest against Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, February 2020 PHOTO: Raneen Sawafta / Reuters

“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of settler colonialism.” So opens a recent article by Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese in the Australian magazine Overland. For today’s left, anti-colonialism has become the key framework for understanding many forms of contemporary injustice. The racist oppression of people of colour, migrants and refugees, and Indigenous peoples across the world is all said to be due to both the history of European colonisation and ongoing systems of colonialism.

It is the Israeli state’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians that is at the centre of most contemporary discussions about colonialism and anti-colonialism. And it isn’t hard to see why.

Zionism emerged during the high point of European colonialism and was deeply influenced by it. Israel itself was founded on the dispossession of the Palestinian population and has always sought to ally itself with the imperialist nations of the world. Today, right-wingers and Zionists pump out propaganda trying to defend Israel from the accusations of colonialism. Pro-Israel organisations like the American Jewish Committee have published lengthy articles seeking to rebut the claim that Israel is a settler colony, while the Tory MP Michael Gove denounced the “prevailing intellectual fashion of decolonisation” as antisemitic in a recent speech to the UK parliament.

For many, the politics of anti-colonialism has been a starting point for rejecting the racist lies of capitalist society and supporting the struggles of the oppressed. In this way, it is a positive move away from the limitations of liberal multiculturalism and moderate centrism with their emphasis on gradually reforming capitalism into a supposedly “post-racial”, “colour-blind” society.

However, there are also significant limitations with the contemporary politics of anti-colonialism, even if these problems have nothing to do with what right-wingers are ranting about. Most importantly, it either discounts or heavily distorts the relationship between imperialism and oppression, and abandons any serious understanding of class and capitalism more broadly. This has important implications for developing the kind of organisations and struggles we need to confront successfully oppression in the Middle East and throughout the world.

Take, for instance, the popular idea that the reason Western countries like Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, support Israel is their common heritage as settler colonial states. As Jewish Voice for Peace Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky put it in a talk published on her organisation’s website, “The ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the United States is rooted in our common national narratives and founding mythology”.

But this can’t explain why governments that have suffered from colonialism, such as Modi’s administration in India or the Kenyan government, are such strong supporters of Israel. Conversely, it cannot explain why countries like Indonesia that are currently engaged in colonisation (West Papua) are capable of opposing Israel’s actions, even if only rhetorically.

Even in the cases of the US and Australia, the establishment’s support for Israel has little to do with some shared history of settler colonialism. They support Israel because it is in the interests of their ruling classes to do so. They want to enforce their dominance over the global capitalist system by strengthening their hold over one of the key pillars of Western imperialism in the Middle East. If for some reason it was no longer in their imperialist interests to support Israel, then the ruling classes of the West wouldn’t do so, no matter what shared history they might have. This explains why neither the US nor Australia are particularly supportive of Chinese colonisation of Tibet and Xinjiang.

The idea that Western nations support Israel because of their common colonial history also repeatedly spills over into cultural explanations for imperialist backing of Israel rather than geopolitical ones. Surasky from Jewish Voice for Peace argues that “the root of this special relationship” is “our [own] national narrative” that it is “right to expand onto other people’s land”. “[O]ur resistance must also be at the level of narrative”, Surasky concludes. “All of us in this movement have to decolonize our minds.”

It is true that Western support for Israel isn’t due to the influence of AIPAC. But nor is it simply rooted in “our national narrative and the feelings it engenders”. Narratives can change, and feelings are fickle, but America’s bipartisan support for Israel is grounded in material interests that are yet to be shaken.

The origins of the Israeli state are commonly portrayed by anti-colonial theorists as lying in the Jewish settlers making a pact with the West to serve its interests in the region and in the process transforming themselves into a “white” population. As academic Johannes Becke wrote in a 2018 article for International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, “While American Jews became white by suburbanisation, Israeli Jews did so by colonization”. This is a very reductive understanding of the origins of Israel on a number of levels.

First of all, it obscures the fact that imperialist nations came to support the Zionist state because it was perceived to be in the interests of their ruling classes and states to do so. It wasn’t in the interests of the undifferentiated mass of people living in the Western countries, the vast majority of whom had no say in the matter.

Secondly, it places the similarities between the colonial ideologies of the Zionists and the West as key to explaining why Western governments supported the creation of Israel. However, the relationship between Western governments and the Zionist movement was complicated and tension-filled, and it evolved over time, undermining the idea that common cultural affinities drove the relationship.

The British government, the key Western player in the region before 1948, was

primarily concerned with entrenching its control over mandate Palestine—not, at least initially, in supporting the narrow goals of the Zionist movement. There was considerable debate within the London colonial elite about the positives and negatives of the Zionist project. These debates were underpinned by discussions about what course would best serve the interests of British imperialism first and foremost.

While the British were happy to suppress the rights of the Palestinians, they were hesitant for a long time about unconditionally backing the creation of a Jewish state. They preferred to lord over the region themselves and play the Jewish and Arab populations off against each other, even while granting more concessions and privileges to the Jewish settlers. As the Zionist movement emerged as a powerful force, the British government came to endorse this project as seemingly the best way to stabilise Western influence over the Zionists and the region in the upheavals of the postwar world.

The US, which would emerge in the postwar world as the major Western imperialist power, was also ambivalent about Israel for some time. It endorsed the establishment of Israel in 1948 but then opposed the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France. There was a strong “Arabist” wing of the US State Department that worried that if the US backed Israel, it would send Arab states into the arms of the Soviet Union. It was only after Israel had proven its military credentials in the 1967 war that American state officials swung around to build the tight alliance with Israel they have today.

It is also important to note that it was not only the traditional imperialist countries of the West that endorsed the establishment of Israel. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognise Israel, and both the USSR and its satellite states in Eastern Europe supported the UN partition plan in 1947. Until the 1950s, the Soviet Union either supported Israel or took a neutral position on conflicts between it and the Arab states. This further complicates the idea that Israel was simply created by the West.

The argument that Jewish settlers transformed themselves into a “white” population and that Israel is an example of white supremacy is also dubious. There are indeed white nationalists like Richard Spencer who champion Israel. There are also certain similarities between how Zionism racialises the Arab world and racism in Western countries. And there is clearly discrimination against Jews from non-white backgrounds in Israel, such as those who arrived from the Middle East, North Africa or Ethiopia.

However, the idea that Jewish settlers—including the many Black and Brown ones—became “white” springs from the illogical underpinnings of identity politics which is deeply embedded within the anti-colonial framework. It flows from the idea that imperialism, racism and colonialism are products of “whiteness” and Western culture, rather than something pursued by capitalist states and nationalist movements regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Are Hindu nationalists in Modi’s India “white” because they organise violent attacks on Muslims and other minorities? Granted, these divisions have historic roots in the imperialist strategies of the old British Raj, but they continue today because of the political dynamics of contemporary Hindu nationalism.

The reality is that violent oppression is something that all sorts of capitalist states, political parties and movements can participate in. As capitalist development has spread across the world, including into the global South, more and more non-Western countries have become violent and oppressive capitalist states. To explain this by claiming that ruling figures in these societies have become “white” would mean describing large parts of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa as such.

Most of the current settler colonial projects in the world today are being carried out by “non-white” countries. China’s ongoing push to replace Uyghurs with Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang, India’s colonisation of Kashmir and the genocide of the Rohingya by the military of Myanmar are just some of the most prominent examples. Most theorists of settler colonialism show little interest in this, presumably because it goes against the thesis that settler colonialism is a product of Western culture, and it cuts against the softness on non-Western governments notable in anti-colonial theory circles.

The anti-colonial framework also downplays how the class divisions within the Palestinian population and the broader Arab world facilitated the rise of the Zionist state.

Absentee Palestinian landlords sold large tracts of land to the Zionist organisations, helping them gain a substantial foothold in the region. When Palestinian peasants and workers erupted into protest against Zionist attacks, some sections of the Arab elite helped the British crush these movements. Abdullah I, the king of Jordan, for instance, forged an alliance with the Zionists in the 1930s and received money from the Jewish Agency, a branch of the World Zionist Organization. When the revolt of 1936 began, he helped Zionist and British forces isolate and eventually defeat the rebellion. At one point he even tried to encourage Zionist settlement in Jordan, a move blocked by the British government.

Palestinian elites, such as the al-Husayni family, held back the struggles of the Palestinians, instead placing their hopes in negotiations with the British government. This led to a series of tragic defeats for the Palestinians that paved the way for the victory of the Zionist forces in 1948. After the Nakba, Arab ruling classes treated the mass of poor Palestinian refugees disgracefully, shunting them away into refugee camps. It was a different story for the elite of Palestinian society, who quickly carved out a position for themselves within the Arab states as successful business owners and professionals.

Since 1948, class divisions amongst Palestinians have continued to be an important issue. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians expelled from Palestine were integrated into the class structures within the surrounding Arab states, which if anything exaggerated the already existing class differences among Palestinians. Wealthier Palestinians were more insulated from the worst effects of the expulsion. Many Palestinian merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs already had well-established links with capitalists and markets in Arab countries, and transferred what movable assets they could. They then quickly merged into the broader Arab ruling classes, their sons and daughters marrying the children of the Jordanian, Lebanese and Saudi elites. By the 1960s there were hundreds of Palestinian millionaires throughout the Gulf states. The vast majority of the Palestinian refugee population, however, were former peasants and unskilled workers who were viewed as unwelcome and potentially rebellious visitors by the Arab governments.

It is these class divisions that lay behind many of the political debates within the Palestinian national movement. The disastrous concept that the Palestinians should look primarily to the Arab states for support didn’t come out of nowhere, but reflected the fact that the upper sections of the Palestinian population were deeply connected materially to the Arab regimes.

Some anti-colonial theorists can acknowledge divisions within national movements, but they see elite layers within nationally oppressed populations as simply sell-outs putting their own narrow interests above those of the national movement as a whole, rather than a class pursuing its own class interests. They also often underestimate the problem of middle-class layers within these movements having different class interests to the mass of workers.

The role that the Palestinian Authority has played in working with the Israeli state to suppress any genuine resistance to Israeli rule is often seen as an example of a small section of elites selling out the nation’s cause. However, in his book Lineages of Revolt, academic Adam Hanieh explains that the actions of the Palestinian Authority are only explicable from an analysis of the class structure of Palestinian society. Since Israel occupied it in 1967, the economy of the West Bank has transformed from a mainly rural one dominated by structures of traditional village life into “an incorporated, dependent, and subordinated appendage of Israeli capitalism”. This shift dispossessed the mass of the Palestinian population of what little land they still controlled and proletarianised it while at the same time there developed “a tiny layer of Palestinian capital that articulates Israeli rule and whose accumulation is dependent on that mediating position”.

The politics of anti-colonialism are not simply ill-thought-out ideas. If taken seriously as a guide to action, they would be disastrous for building a movement that can actually challenge imperialism and capitalism. In South Africa, the theory that Africans suffered from “internal colonisation” was developed by primarily white intellectuals around the South African Communist Party. They used the theory to justify the pro-capitalist strategy of the African National Congress, which sought to narrow the radicalism of African workers around a program to simply replace the racist apartheid regime with a new capitalist government controlled by a Black elite.

In the US, Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael and political scientist Charles V. Hamilton used the theory that African Americans were a colony within the US to argue for building up a Black political power bloc. This ultimately primarily benefited the layer of Black mayors, congresspeople and police chiefs who were elected to supposedly decolonise urban spaces.

In Australia, anti-colonial rhetoric is just as often used to argue for more Indigenous-owned businesses, NGOs and government bureaucracies as it is for any genuine struggle against racism, let alone capitalism.

Throughout the 20th century, anti-colonial movements were able to win across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. While socialists celebrate the end of direct colonial rule, we need to be clear that in none of these cases did anti-colonial revolutions lead to societies based on equality and justice. Instead, new capitalist states were created with continued exploitation and oppression.

There are those on the Left who adopt the politics of anti-colonialism but consider themselves to be fighting for something more radical than the examples raised above. But the problem is that the logic of anti-colonial politics inevitably leads towards pro-capitalist so-called solutions to the issues of racism and imperialism. Its very framing reinforces the idea that the key division in the world is different national groups rather than classes, and that the problems of the world are due to things external or secondary to capitalism, rather than the fundamental nature of the system itself.

For instance, in Settler Colonialism: An Introduction, Sai Englert, a socialist writer, argues that one of the benefits of anti-colonial politics is that it can foster “unity across different sections of the Palestinian people”. But unity with whom and on what political basis? Englert discusses many examples of movements against national oppression, including in Palestine, but at no point even acknowledges, let alone discusses, the different class forces within them, opting for uncritical veneration instead.

Many of the people protesting for Palestine today are doing so at least in part because of these anti-colonial ideas, which make sense as a starting point given the weakness of class struggle and the left. But faced with another century of brutal wars and vicious oppression, we need a clear Marxist politics that emphasises the necessity of confronting the underlying structures of capitalism through the immense potential power of the working class.

Jordan Humphreys is the author of “Palestine and the classless politics of settler colonial theory” in the upcoming issue of the Marxist Left Review. He is also the author of Indigenous Liberation and Socialism available through Red Flag books.

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.