The outbreak of an imperialist war has always been a test for those who claim to be on the side of the world working class against capitalism. In 1914 it clearly separated those “socialists”, and “anarchists” who rallied to the defence of their own ruling class from those who, even at the price of isolation and repression, held firm to the principle that the workers have no fatherland.
At the same time, while these lines of demarcation were very clear, there was also a “centre”, a “swamp” made up of elements who were, for diverse reasons, unable to take up an unequivocal position for or against the war – either because they were using empty phrases about peace and justice to hide their own drift towards accommodation with capitalism, or because they were making sincere if confused efforts to head in the opposite direction – i.e. towards the proletarian camp.
In the reactions to the current conflict in Israel/Palestine, we can see similar patterns. In the main cities of Europe and the US, we have seen numerous demonstrations calling on us to choose one camp against the other: mainly those brandishing Palestinian flags and supported by an array of liberals, social democrats, Trotskyists, Islamists, and others. These marches had the function of channelling real indignation provoked by the brutal Israeli onslaught against Gaza into the service of a wider imperialist conflict. The slogans “Free Palestine” and “We are all Hamas” not only declare their support for nationalist gangs aiming to establish a new capitalist state, but also coincide with the imperialist aims of Iran, Qatar, Russia and China. Opposing them were smaller groups of diehard Zionists for whom Israel can do no wrong and who, if they criticise US policy in the Middle East, merely demand even more blatant US support for Israel’s imperialist expansion. In both cases, these were pro-war mobilisations.
But there are also those who reject these rallies in the name of working class internationalism. For example, the website libcom.org provides a space for those – mainly, but not only, groups or individuals who label themselves “class struggle anarchists” – who argue against support for national liberation struggles or the setting up of new bourgeois states. An examination of the thread “Jerusalem and Gaza” provides samples of the range of groups and opinions which say that they do not identify with either camp in the conflict. Or rather, it reveals that among those who lay claim to the internationalist position on this and similar wars, there is again a “centre”, a marshy ground in which proletarian positions are mixed up with concessions to the dominant ideology, and thus to justifications for imperialist war.
Today most of the political currents who composed this “centre” in the First World War have either disappeared or made their final peace with the bourgeoisie, many of them returning to the social democratic parties which had by the early 20s clearly become adjuncts of the capitalist state. In today’s conditions, the various anarchist groups and tendencies are the most common denizens of the swamp: at one end, openly merging with the left wing of capital, at the other, defending definite internationalist positions. This was clearly shown in the reaction of the anarchists to the war in Israel/Palestine.
On the one hand, you have anarchist organisations which are almost indistinguishable from the Trotskyists. The article from our section in France identifies the Organisation Communiste Libertaire as an example of this kind of anarcho-leftism: “Faced with the outburst of violence orchestrated by an Israeli regime in the midst of a political crisis, led by a Netanyahu at the end of his rope and ready to sacrifice the Palestinians to ensure his continuity in power, timid condemnations (or worse, statements that place Israelis and Palestinians back to back) are not enough. International law must be applied. It could not be clearer!” . An edifying example of anarchists appealing to the fiction of “international law”!
On the libcom thread, the statement from a number of “anarchist communist groups” in Oceania takes a similar stance. While claiming to denounce nationalism it calls on us to take sides with a “Palestinian resistance” which is somehow outside it. “Israel’s occupation is a naked form of colonial oppression, and its Palestinian victims have every right to resist it by whatever means that are in accord with the final goal of liberation. (...) There is no grey area, there are no two equal sides at war. The Palestinian masses are resisting oppression.” At the end of the leaflet, there is an appeal for people to participate in a series of “Free Palestine” demos being organised across Australia.
In the US, the Workers Solidarity Alliance also speaks with two tongues: on the one hand: “We support a vision of Jewish and Palestinian workers, peasants, and oppressed people questioning and ultimately breaking with supremacist, nationalist, and militaristic imaginaries and ideologies, and coming together in joint struggle to overcome power, privilege, and hatred by building mutual aid, inter-communal solidarity, and collective self-management”. And in the next sentence it says: “externally, we welcome U.S. workers supporting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, and publicly protesting against the ongoing violence in Occupied Palestine”. Campaigns to boycott this or that state follow the same logic of “sanctions” imposed by one state against another for flouting “international law” or “human rights”.
The choices made by the promoters of such campaigns are significant in themselves. For example, the Syrian regime of Assad, backed by Russia, is directly responsible for the most horrifying massacre of the Syrian population, but you will never find leftists organising marches to denounce this carnage – some Trotskyist groups even see Assad as an anti-imperialist force. Israel, on the other hand, is routinely defined by the left wing of capital as a state which has no right to exist – as if, from the point of view of the working class, any capitalist state has a “legitimate” right to enforce its exploitation and oppression.
In contrast, the thread also contains statements from the CNT-FAI (UK affiliate, the Solidarity Federation) and from its Russian affiliate, the KRAS, which avoid this call to take sides in the conflict and defend the basics of an internationalist response. The KRAS (whose statements against war in the Caucasus we have published in the past) say that the problems in Israel/Palestine “are generated by the interests of power and property of the rulers and capitalists of all sides, and can only be eliminated together with them - eliminated by joint struggle and, ultimately, by the social revolution of Jewish and Arab workers, ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
The path to this decision is difficult and long. Too much despair, too fresh the smell of spilled blood, the minds of ordinary people are too much poisoned by Israeli (Zionist) and Arab nationalisms, emotions are too raging today. But there is no other road to peace in the long-suffering region, and there cannot be….
NO WAR! NO TO NATIONALISM, MILITARISM AND RELIGIOUS FANATISM FROM ALL SIDES!
NEITHER ISRAEL, NOR PALESTINE, BUT A JOINT CLASS STRUGGLE OF THE WORKING PEOPLE IN REGION!”
The statement of the Anarchist Communist Group in the UK is also relatively clear on the rejection of national solutions:
“Because a solution to the conflict can ultimately only be a common, classless and stateless society in which people of different religious (and non-religious) and ethnic backgrounds can coexist peacefully. And the way to achieve this can only be through class struggle, with workers uniting on both sides to improve their situation and thereby overcoming long-held resentments. It is the task of the anarchist and libertarian communist movement to push for exactly this”.
The idea of the Palestinian “resistance” – an open window to the betrayal of internationalism
As it happens, the libcom thread was not started by an anarchist, but by a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This group, a semi-fossilised survivor from the days when the Second International was a proletarian organisation, maintains its profound illusions in a “parliamentary road” to socialism, but it has never supported capitalist wars or nationalist struggles. The original poster, ajjohnstone, links to the official SPGB blog which makes a telling critique not only of Zionism but also of Palestinian nationalism: “It is easy to see why the poverty-stricken in the Palestinian refugee camps might view the promise of Palestinian self-government as an answer. Sadly, like the Zionists, Palestinians have fallen for a dangerous myth about the past; in their case, the myth that Palestine belonged to them. It was no such thing: most Palestinians struggled along on tiny plots of land, under the weight of massive debts, exploited by a class of landlords. Palestine did not belong to the Palestinians, any more than modern Israel belongs to working-class Israelis. In 1930, the average rural family in Palestine was in debt to the tune of £P27, which was approximately such a family’s yearly income. On 1936 figures, one-fifth of one per cent of the population owned a quarter of the land! Clearly pre-Israeli Palestine did not belong to the Palestinian peasants: in 1948 they were driven off land which was not theirs.
They have yet to realise it, but the workers of the region regardless of the national boundaries where they now live — have an identity of interest. Let’s hope that they come to recognise their common interests and reject the nationalism and religious bigotry that engender false divisions, violence and racial hatred. When it comes to the nationalist and religious fervour, there is nothing at all with which we as socialists can identify, for both are abstractions that have imbued the workers of the region with a false consciousness that prevents them identifying their real class interests”.
At the same time, this comrade’s posts on the libcom thread, having chased Palestinian nationalism out of the door, seem to let it back through the window through the idea that the demonstrations and riots by Palestinians inside Israel during the conflict constitute a “resistance” movement which offers a hopeful sign for the future. The comrade talks about “the significant development of Palestinian-Israelis now participating more fully in the resistance. After all, it is the apartheid-like laws being applied in Sheikh Jarrah and attacks on the main mosque that triggered the present unrest.. If such Palestinian-Israeli anti-discrimination movement grows and begin to exert the political power outside of the Knesset, I can only view it as a positive turn of events to undermine the influence of the Zionist ruling ideology”. It’s true that many young Palestinians came out onto the street in reaction to the attempted evictions of Arab families in East Jerusalem, or to pogroms by the Zionist extreme right, but given the complete lack of any proletarian response to the war within Israel/Palestine, given the long history of nationalist divisions stoked up by almost continuous warfare, these mobilisations only sharpened ethnic clashes and the pogrom atmosphere inside Israel, and were openly aligned with the military response of Hamas from the Gaza Strip. In no sense do they offer the basis for a future unification of the Arab and Jewish workers against their exploiters.
This dangerous window was also opened by a group like the ACG, whose confusions on the “legitimacy” of the Zionist state we criticised in a previous article. In this case, the ACG sees something positive in the fact that the Palestinian demonstrations and “general strike” were organised by rank and file committees in the neighbourhoods rather than the traditional Palestinian organisations. “The Palestinian masses need to be self-organised and outside of the control of Hamas or the PLO factions – to some extent, this is already happening…” The ACG then quotes from 927 Magazine. “An extraordinary feature of the demonstrations is that they are primarily being organized not by political parties or figures, but by young Palestinian activists, neighborhood committees, and grassroots collectives”
This revives memories of the dominant anarchist reaction to the war in Spain in the 1930s, when the fact that industries and farms were “self-managed” by the workers led anarchists to see a revolution in progress, when the reality was that these structures were entirely integrated into the “anti-fascist” war effort – an imperialist conflict on both sides which prepared the ground for the war of 1939-45.
In contrast to these ambiguous attitudes, the positions of the groups of the communist left linked to on the thread – the ICC and the ICT - are unequivocal. Whereas few anarchist groups have any real concept of imperialism, both organisations of the communist left denounce the imperialist manoeuvres in the region as well as the war-machines of Israel and Hamas, which can only serve their own or others’ imperialist aims. The ICT statement begins with the slogan “neither Israel nor Palestine” and recognises, like the ICC article, that the pogrom atmosphere exists on both sides of the sectarian divide: “The Israel government’s solution is to let fascist groups like ‘La Familia’ rampage through Arab quarters of towns like Lod shouting ‘Death to Arabs’…The Arab youth have fought back and attacked Jewish targets. They echo the call of the fascists by shouting ‘Death to Jews’, a call which has brought the emotionally charged accusation of ‘pogrom’ from the Israeli press. But there are now pogroms on both sides of this ‘communal violence’”.
There is also a statement by the Angry Workers of the World, a “workerist” or “autonomist” group which is rather clear in its internationalist stance and provides a lucid rebuttal of any illusions in the mobilisations in the Palestinian neighbourhoods, and the general strike in particular:
“the general strike called on 18th May … was lauded by leftists the world over who hadn’t examined its real contents. The mere phrase ‘general strike’ was, for them, enough to demonstrate that a genuine working class action had taken place. But the strike itself was called ‘from above’ and interclassist to the core: While mass numbers of workers did strike (only 150 out of 65,000 construction workers came in, 5000 cleaning workers and 10% of bus drivers were absent, etc.) it was also widely embraced by middle class professionals. It was first called by the Higher Monitoring Committee, the de facto representative of the Arab middle class in Israel, and was enthusiastically taken up by Fatah and Hamas, who ordered their own public sector workers to join in. These parties were not interested in the building of working class power, in fact they have always actively opposed it. The great success of the strike, all its leaders and reporters agreed, was the demonstration of the unity of the ‘Palestinian people,’ but it also had the deeper aim of binding the working class tighter to the bourgeois institutions leading it”.
It is noted on the thread that the statements of the ICT and the AWW seem to have stirred a great deal of online abuse and hatred. But internationalists don’t denounce capitalist wars to be popular. Both in 1914-18 and 1939-45 the internationalist minority who remained firm on their principles faced repression by the state and persecution by nationalist thugs. The defence of internationalism is not judged by its immediate results but by its capacity to provide an orientation which can be taken up in future by movements which really do constitute a proletarian resistance to capitalist war. Thus those who stood against the dark tide of chauvinism in 1914, like the Bolsheviks and the Spartacists, were preparing the ground for the revolutionary working class uprisings of 1917-18.
 Posts 4 and 7 on the libcom thread