For more than 100 years, the socialist movement has been divided into revolutionary and non-revolutionary wings.
The reformist wing has claimed to improve the condition of the working class while keeping the basic institutions of capitalism in place and using them as levers for political action. The revolutionary wing has tried to transcend the boundaries of capitalist politics, to break its institutions and replace them with fundamentally different ones.
In the last century, the failings of the non-revolutionary approach defined the fates of the Jews of Europe and the Arabs of the Middle East.
In the early 1920s, Europe’s militant right-wing activists developed a program that combined hatred of Marxism with frenzied anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. The impoverished and underdeveloped Middle East was dominated by the imperialists and colonialists who had come out on top in World War One: French and British diplomats had divided the region by secret agreement, and had their new colonial possessions ratified under the name of “mandates” by the League of Nations.
Europe and the Middle East were tied together by the system of imperialist competition and domination. Even in peacetime, that system bred anti-democratic, racist and pro-military politics in the great powers and in their colonies. Moreover, it constantly pushed towards the return of war and with it the intensification of all those trends.
To solve the problem and liberate the oppressed required cutting out the root problem: the capitalist mode of production, which turned the whole planet into a global competition between armed and dangerous national states. That required an international socialist revolution.
This goal was not shared by all self-described socialists. The right wing of the European socialist movement included many ardent supporters of imperialism—and even colonialism—such as the German “moderate” Eduard Bernstein. For non-revolutionary socialists, reforming and perfecting their own national state was the key to social progress.
In most countries, the leaders of the mainstream socialist parties had supported their own countries’ imperialist war efforts. As the war dragged on and workers’ resistance intensified, this support became more and more tied to defence of the capitalist system itself. To defend their own state against a workers’ uprising, the German “moderate” socialists would ultimately help organise the nationalist death-squads that would form some of the earliest recruits to Hitler’s Nazi party.
Some Jewish socialists had also been influenced, in a different way, by the power of imperialism and colonialism. The Zionist movement argued that Europeans would never accept Jews and that, rather than fighting to defeat the root causes of anti-Semitism, the only solution was to leave the continent and establish a state with the backing of the imperialist powers.
But to appeal to the anti-capitalist values of many Jewish militants, this argument was presented as a form of socialist activism by the “socialist Zionist” parties such as Poale Zion and Hashomer Hatzair. Like the reformist socialists of Europe, these parties promised to overcome capitalism without a revolutionary class struggle and without challenging imperialism or colonialism. The right-wing socialists of Europe proposed to do this by taking over the existing imperialist states, the socialist-Zionists by implanting a new “socialist” society on land stolen from Palestinians, in alliance with the imperialist powers.
The Communist International was founded to promote a worldwide revolutionary opposition to these compromises and betrayals. Instead of seeking power within capitalist states, these revolutionaries promoted international working-class struggle. They rejected chauvinistic nationalism, did not take sides in wars between imperialist states and supported the struggles of colonial peoples for liberation. Socialism would be refounded on the basic concept of international class struggle: “Workers of the world, unite”.
The principles were clear, even if the application might be difficult and complex. European workers would be organised to fight fascism and protect Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. In Palestine, the Zionist settlement program would be rejected and resisted. The Jewish sections of the Communist Party of Russia issued a statement in 1920: “On the pretence of national liberation, a privileged Jewish minority is being artificially implanted in the population of Palestine ... The slogan of the Jewish workers, and of every friend of the toiling masses and every fighter for national liberation, must be ‘Hands off Palestine!’”.
But the inspirational stand of the Communist International, and the strategy it promised for international liberation, did not survive into the 1930s. Isolated and blockaded by the imperialist powers, the post-revolutionary Russian state came close to total economic collapse, before Stalin’s faction of bureaucrats took power and established themselves as a new national ruling class.
Wiping out the revolutionary legacy of the Communist International, they transformed it into an instrument of Russian foreign policy. Through a combination of threats, lies and bribery, Communist parties purged internal dissent and installed reliably pro-Stalin leaderships. Instead of fighting for international revolution, their mission now was to use quasi-Marxist language to defend the economic and diplomatic interests of the Russian state.
The revolutionary internationalist current in socialist politics was almost completely extinguished. From then on, the Communists were just another set of nationalist politicians, seeking power and influence in the imperialist system.
The results came quickly. Stalinist Communist parties, despite their sometimes ultra-radical language, preferred to maintain internal discipline rather than risk workers’ revolutions. But in some countries, workers’ revolution was the only alternative to fascist dictatorship—so the passivity of the Communists helped Hitler’s rise to power, resulting in the elimination of almost an entire generation of Jewish socialists.
As Stalin’s government sought alliances with Western capitalists against Germany, Communists were taught to seek alliances with “democratic”, “progressive” capitalists, all the way up to ultra-imperialist Tories such as Winston Churchill.
Stalin dissolved the Communist International in 1943, officially acknowledging Russia’s lack of interest in international revolution. “Internationalism” came to mean supporting the immediate demands of the Russian government. Any capitalist potentially willing to do a deal with the Russian state became a “progressive”, and Communists had to act as their lapdogs. This conception of a “people’s front” would soon have devastating consequences for the Palestinians.
After World War Two, as the British colonial presence in the Middle East began to disintegrate, the Zionists began seeking powerful patrons. It is not surprising that the US, the rising Western imperialist power, supported the partition of Palestine in 1947 and Israel’s “Declaration of Independence” in 1948.
But given the history of revolutionary anti-Zionism, it shocked many that Stalin’s USSR moved equally swiftly to give diplomatic support and recognition to the dispossession of the Palestinians. The Stalinist satellite state of Czechoslovakia gave Israel crucial military hardware to win the war throughout 1948, and Communist parties throughout the world—including in the Middle East—were instructed to follow the line.
Israel’s own fake “socialists”, though, knew that they would ultimately need Western support and investment to develop their new national economy. The ruling “socialist-Zionist” party, MAPAI, aggressively courted the Western imperialist powers through the 1950s, trying to prove Israel’s willingness to act as a loyal member of the US’s coalition—even supporting the US war in Korea, an early test of Cold War loyalties. Israel would be ruled by these genocidal, pro-imperialist “socialists” well into the 1970s: under their leadership, Gaza and the West Bank were invaded and occupied in 1967.
For many Arabs in the Middle East, the actions of the USSR and Israel established beyond reasonable doubt that “socialism” was nothing more than a rebranded form of colonialism. Throughout the Middle East, the Communist parties included many heroic, self-sacrificing activists who were willing to be jailed, or worse, for participating in illegal political parties under dictatorships and in wartime. Yet they were all instructed to accept and promote the partition of Palestine and the establishment of Israel.
This applied not only to groups influenced by Jewish chauvinism, like the Palestine Communist Party. The Palestinian National Liberation League, which mostly consisted of Arabs of Communist background, was also led to accept the partition of their homeland under the pressure to show loyalty to the USSR’s foreign policy; their movement was ultimately wiped out when Arab urban workers, who made up their base, were expelled from major industrial centres during the Nakba.
Egypt’s Communists were organised in the Movement for National Liberation, which united many Jews of European and Middle Eastern background with Egyptian Arabs. In this decisively important country, Communists had established an impressive record of resisting Zionism while fighting the official anti-Semitism of the decrepit Egyptian monarchy: at anti-Zionist demonstrations, the Communists had sometimes linked arms to protect Jewish shopfronts from ultra-nationalists who tried to divert the anti-imperialist movement into a racial-religious conflict.
Yet they, too, were instructed to accept the division of Palestine and the establishment of Israel. One of their members, Mustafa Tiba, recalled that “the minority that rejected this stand was described as deviating from internationalism and breaking with Marxist teachings”. In this time, “internationalism” and “Marxist teachings” simply meant whatever Stalin’s diplomats required on any given day.
Unsurprisingly, this led many Arabs to reject Marxism completely. The Stalinists had convinced the world that “internationalism” was code for “Russian foreign policy”. The Communist International’s strategy of international working-class revolution was advocated only by tiny groups, mostly those influenced by Trotsky, who had been murdered by Stalin’s agents in 1940. Everyone else—Stalinists, Zionists and Western imperialists—seemed to agree: “socialism” just meant dictatorial states fighting for their own interests, forming unprincipled alliances and waging war on one another.
The logical outcome was the rise of “Arab socialism” as a perceived solution to the problem of colonialism. It was yet one more form of “socialism” based on rejecting class struggle, embracing ultra-patriotic nationalism and developing powerful, repressive dictatorships that could wage war against their enemies while crushing dissent at home. This was promulgated by the “Free Officers” who seized power in Egypt in 1952 and the Ba’ath parties that would come to power in Syria and Iraq.
Like the “socialist Zionists” before them, the “Arab socialists” ended up as players in the imperialist system, although much less powerful than their Israeli rivals. Some, like the Syrians, ended up in the pro-Russian bloc; others, like the Egyptians, became bulwarks of Western influence in the region; some, like the Iraqis, were happy to deal with whoever made the best offer. Under the Stalinist guidance to support the “progressive bourgeoisie”, their domestic Communist parties have supported most of these dictatorships; the Egyptian Communists even liquidated their own organisations in the 1960s, instructing their members simply to join Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union. The Communists had completely given up on providing a revolutionary, internationalist alternative.
As the Palestinian liberation movement developed from the 1960s, the Arab “socialist” states played a poisonous role. The official leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was openly pro-capitalist, and was in effect bribed by the regional Arab powers: Arab states funded and sheltered the PLO, if the PLO agreed to help make sure that the struggle for Palestinian freedom never developed into a region-wide movement that would threaten the dictatorships.
The left-wing opposition to the PLO’s leadership was expressed in the “Fronts”: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But these organisations made exactly the same deal with the Arab socialist dictatorships, travelling to Syria, Iraq and Libya to bolster their “anti-Zionist” credentials. The PFLP hailed Bashar al-Assad’s “victory against the terrorist forces” when his regime contained and exterminated the revolution that threatened it in the 2010s.
The forces of pro-state, nationalist “socialism” have, in the last century, meant that almost every imperialist crime in the Middle East has been defended by self-described socialists.
It is no wonder that so many Arabs, confronting the crimes of Western and Russian imperialism, are drawn to the hopeless ideologies that interpret these crimes as religious conflicts. Decades of Stalinist and nationalist betrayal make Islamism seem like a credible option. By propping up and defending the system of imperialism, these forces have done indescribable damage, not only to the name of “socialism”, but to the workers and oppressed of the Middle East. The system that the Communist International opposed in the 1920s was not ended: it has only mutated into even more dangerous and violent forms.
The modern revolutionary socialist movement was born in the middle of World War One. It was not only economic inequality that led to its rise. Imperialist war and colonialism led to the principles of the Communist International: to seek human liberation not through the construction of powerful national states, but through international class struggle and solidarity. The rejection of those principles has led to one disaster after another. Only their rediscovery and application offer hope for the future.
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Asked how she stays hopeful as a 63-year-old socialist and Palestinian living in the diaspora, Reem Yunis replies: “I don’t have the luxury not to be inspired. My grandparents died without seeing a liberated Palestine, my parents died and were buried in the diaspora. Most of my people are living in the diaspora, and the ones in Palestine are being robbed of water, resources and every bit of land they have. We need to have hope and fight, because if we won’t fight for a free Palestine, who will?”