Conflict in the Middle East: Notes on the history of imperialist conflict in the Middle East, Part II

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As we saw at the end of the previous article in this series (see International Review n°115), by the end of World War I the development of Zionist nationalism, and its manipulation by the British in their struggle against their imperialist rivals for domination in the Middle East, had introduced a new and growing factor of instability to the region.

In this article, we intend to examine how Zionist and Arab nationalism came to play an increasingly important role in the Middle East, both as pawns in the complex balance of forces between the great imperialist powers, and as weapons against the threat posed by the working class in the period following the Russian revolution.

Zionism used to sow divisions in the working class

The capitalist class has always sought to use and even to exaggerate ethnic, cultural, and religious difference within the working class in order to "divide and rule".

It is nonetheless true that in most countries, capitalism in its ascendant phase was able to integrate different ethnic and religious groups into society by proletarianising most of their members, thus substantially reducing racial, ethnic and religious divisions within the population. Modern Zionism however is profoundly marked by its emergence at the end of the ascendant phase of capitalism, once the formation of nation states had come to an end, and when no more “Lebensraum”[1] was available for the formation of new nations, when the survival of capitalism was only possible through war and destruction.

In 1897, when the first Zionist congress in Basel put forward the claim to a Jewish national territory, the Left wing in the Second International had already begun to reject the formation of new separate territorial entities.

In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) rejected  the existence of an  independent, separate Jewish organisation within its ranks, demanding that the existing Jewish organisation - the Bund - should merge with the territorial Russian party. The second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903 not only put the question of the Bund as the first point on the agenda, even before the debate on the statutes, but it “rejected as absolutely inadmissible in principle any possibility of federal relations between the RSDLP and the Bund”. The Bund itself, at the time also rejected the formation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.

The left wing of the Second International before World War I thus clearly rejected the formation of a national Jewish entity in Palestine.

 The birth of political Zionism was contemporaneous with an increase in Jewish immigration to the Middle East, and especially to Palestine. The first big wave of Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine after the pogroms and repression in Tsarist Russia in 1882; the second wave of refugees from Eastern Europe arrived following the defeat of the revolutionary struggles in Russia in 1905. In 1850 there were 12,000 Jews in Palestine, in 1882 their number rose to 35,000, while in 1914 their number stood at 90,000.

Britain was now planning to use the Zionists as a reliable ally in the region against its European rivals, most notably France, and against the Arab bourgeoisie. Britain was in the position to make promises to both the Zionists and the Pan-Arab bourgeoisie, playing to the hilt the card of “divide and rule”, a policy which Britain managed to practice successfully in the region until the period before World War II. During World War I both the Zionists and the incipient Pan-Arabists were promised they would gain Palestine in return for supporting Britain in the war. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised this to the Zionists at precisely the same time as T.S. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") of the British Foreign Office was promising it to the Arab tribal leaders in return for staging the Arab revolt against the collapsing Ottoman empire.

In 1922, when Britain took over the "Palestine Mandate" from the League of Nations, some 650,000 inhabitants were registered in Palestine, of which 560,000 were Muslims or Christians, while some 85,000 were Jewish. The Zionists now tried to increase the number of Jewish settlers as quickly as possible, regulating their influx for their imperialist purpose. A "colonial bureau" was established, which was to foster the Jewish colonisation of land in Palestine.

Zionism however was not merely a tool of British interests in the Middle East: it also pursued its own capitalist project of expansion, the establishment of its own Jewish state – a project which in decadent capitalism can only be implemented at the expense of its local rivals and which is inevitably linked to war and destruction.

The appearance of modern Zionism is thus a typical expression of the decadence of this system. It is an ideology which cannot be implemented without military methods, in other words Zionism without war, without total militarisation, without exclusion and “containment” is impossible.

Thus by supporting the establishment of a Jewish home, the British “protectors” gave the go-ahead for nothing else but ethnic cleansing, the violent displacement of the local inhabitants. This policy has become a permanent and widely applied practice in all war-torn countries. It has become a classical feature of decadence.[2]

While the policy of ethnic cleansing and segregation was not limited to the territories of the former Ottoman empire, this region has become a centre for these bloody practices. Throughout the 20th century the Balkans have suffered a series of ethnic cleansings and massacres – all of them supported or manipulated by the European powers and the US. In Turkey the ruling class launched a terrible genocide against the Armenians – the bloodbath began in 1915 when Turkish troops slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians, and continued after World War I. In the war between Greece and Turkey between March 1921 and October 1922 some 1.3 million Greeks were displaced from Turkey, and some 450,000 Turks were displaced from Greece.

The Zionist project of setting up its own territorial unit was necessarily based on segregation, division, discord, displacement, in short on military terror and annihilation – all this long before a Zionist state was proclaimed in 1948.

In fact Zionism is a particular form of settler colonialism, which is based not on the exploitation of local labour power, but on its exclusion, its displacement. Arab workers were not to be part of the "Jewish community", but were rigorously excluded on the basis of the slogan "Jewish soil, Jewish work, Jewish goods!".

The rules laid down by the British "protectorate" required that the Jewish settlers buy their land from the Arab landowners. Property rights were above all in the hands of rich Arabic landowners, for whom land was mainly an object of speculation. Moreover, they were willing to evict the Palestinian day labourers and tenant farmers if the new landlords wished it. This is how many Arab peasants and agricultural workers lost both their jobs and their land: the creation of a Jewish settlement not only meant being driven off the land, it meant being thrust into even greater misery.

Once the land was sold to Jewish settlers, the Zionists prohibited the resale of land to non-Jews. It was no longer just a piece of Jewish private property, a commodity, it had become a part of Zionist territory, which had to be defended militarily as a conquest.

In the economy, Arab workers were being expelled from their jobs. The Zionist trade union Histadrut, in close co-operation with other Zionist organisations, did everything to prevent Arab workers from selling their labour power to Jewish capitalists. The Palestinian workers were thus pushed into conflicts with the growing numbers of Jewish immigrants, who were also looking for jobs.

The establishment of a Jewish national home, as promised by the British "protectorate", meant nothing else but constant military confrontations between the Zionists and the Arab bourgeoisie – with the working class and peasants pulled onto this bloody terrain.

What was the position of the Communist International towards the imperialist situation in the Middle East and the formation of a "Jewish home"?

The policy of the Comintern - a disastrous dead-end

As Rosa Luxemburg had concluded during World War I: “In the era of raging imperialism there can no longer be an national wars. National interests only serve to fool the working masses, in order to push them into the arms of their deadly enemy- imperialism”. (Draft for the Junius pamphlet, adopted by the Spartacusbund on 1st January 1916).

When the Russian workers seized power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks tried to ease the pressure of the bourgeoisie and its White Armies on the working class, and win the support of the "toiling masses" in neighbouring countries, by spreading the slogan of "national self-determination", a position of the RSDLP which had already been criticised by the current around Rosa Luxemburg before World War I (see our the articles in the International Review n°34, 37, 42).  But instead of succeeding in weakening the pressure of the bourgeoisie and pulling the "toiling masses" over to their side, the policy of the Bolsheviks had the opposite, disastrous effect. Again, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her pamphlet The Russian Revolution: “while Lenin and his comrades clearly expected that, as champions of national freedom even to the extent of ‘separation’, they would turn Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, etc., into so many faithful allies of the Russian revolution, we have witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these ‘nations’ used their freshly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and under German protection to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself... Instead of warning the proletariat in the border countries against all forms of separatism as mere bourgeois traps, and instead of squashing the separatist movements in their germ with an iron hand, the use of which in THIS case truly corresponded to the sense and spirit of the proletarian dictatorship,  they did nothing but confuse the masses in all the border countries by their slogan and delivered them up to the demagogy of the bourgeois classes. By this nationalistic demand they brought on the disintegration of Russia itself, pressed into the enemy’s hand the knife which it was to thrust into the heart of the Russian Revolution” (The Russian revolution, Pathfinder Press).

As the revolutionary wave started to recede, in July 1920 the 2nd Congress of the Communist International began to develop an opportunist position on the national question in the hope of winning the support of the workers and peasants in the colonial countries. At this point, the support for allegedly "revolutionary" movements was not yet "unconditional" but remained dependent on certain criteria Point 11 of the Theses stresses: “A determined fight is necessary against the attempt to put a communist cloak around revolutionary liberation movements that are not really communist in the backward countries. The Communist International has the duty to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies only for the purpose of gathering the components of the future proletarian parties (...) and training them to be conscious of their special tasks (...) of fighting against the bourgeois democratic tendencies within their own nation. The Communist International should accompany the revolutionary movement in the colonies and the backward countries for part of the way, should even make an alliance with it, it may not, however, fuse with it, but must unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo” (“Theses on the National Colonial Question adopted by the 2nd Congress of the Communist International, July 1920).

 Point 12 of the Theses went on: “It is necessary to unmask the continuous manipulation of the broad masses of all the workers and in particular of those of the backward countries and nations, which the imperialist powers commit with the help of the privileged classes by proclaiming the existence of states under the mask of politically independent states, which, however, are totally dependent on them economically, financially and militarily. A crass example of the manipulation of the working class of an oppressed nation, that the imperialism of the Entente and the bourgeoisie of the nations concerned are trying to achieve together, is the Palestine-affair of the Zionists (...) In today’s international situation there is no other salvation for the dependent and weak nations than an alliance with the Soviet republics.”

But as the isolation of the revolution in Russia grew and the Comintern[3] and the Bolshevik party became more and more opportunist, the initial criteria for supporting certain ‘revolutionary movements’ were dropped. At its 4th Congress in November 1922, the International adopted the disastrous policy of the "united front", insisting that:

The main task that all national-revolutionary movements have to fulfil, is the realisation of national unity and the establishment of independence as a state...”.

While the Communist Left around Bordiga in particular waged a bitter struggle against the policy of the "united front", the Comintern declared that “the refusal of the communists of the colonies to participate in the struggle against imperialist violation by claiming to ‘defend’ autonomous class interests, is opportunism of the worst kind, which can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East” (the two thesis are from the Thesis  (?) on the Orient question – 4th Congress, Nov. 1922 – check for original translation).

But it was the International that was falling into opportunism. This opportunist course had already become visible at the Congress of the Peoples of the East, held at Baku in September 1920 shortly after the 2nd Congress of the Comintern. The Baku Congress addressed itself particularly to national minorities in countries adjacent to the besieged Soviet Republic, where British imperialism was threatening to strengthen its influence and thus create new springboards for armed intervention against Russia.

"As a result of colossal, barbarous slaughter, imperialist Britain has emerged as the sole and omnipotent master of Europe and Asia" ("Manifesto of the Congress to the Peoples of the East").  Starting from the mistaken assumption that "imperialist Britain has beaten and rendered powerless all its rivals, it has become the omnipotent master of Europe and Asia", the Comintern fatally underestimated the new level of imperialist rivalries, which the onset of capitalism's decadence had unleashed.

Had World War I not shown that all countries, whether large or small, had become imperialist? Instead, the Baku Congress focussed the perspective on a struggle against British imperialism. "Britain, the last powerful imperialist predator left in Europe, has spread its dark wings over the Eastern Moslem countries, and is trying to turn the peoples of the East into its slaves, into its booty. Slavery! Frightful slavery, ruin, oppression and exploitation is being brought by Britain to the peoples of the East. Save yourselves, peoples of the East! (...) Stand up and fight against the common enemy, imperialist Britain!" (idem). 

Concretely, the policy of support for the "national-revolutionary" movements and the call for an "anti-imperialist front" meant that Russia and the Bolshevik party, which was increasingly being absorbed into the Russian state, entered into an alliance with nationalist movements.

Already in April 1920 Kemal Ataturk[4] had urged Russia to form an anti-imperialist alliance with Turkey. Shortly after the crushing of the workers’ rising of Kronstadt in March 1921, and the outbreak of war between Greece and Turkey, Moscow signed a treaty of friendship between Russia and Turkey. After repeated wars, for the first time a Russian government supported the existence of Turkey as a nation state.

The workers and peasants of Palestine were also pushed into a nationalist dead-end: “we consider the Arab national movement one of the essential forces which fight British colonialism. It is our duty to do all we can to help this movement in its struggle against colonialism.”

The Communist Party of Palestine, which was founded in 1922, appealed for support for the Mufti Hafti Amin Hussein. In 1922 the latter had become mufti of Jerusalem and Chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council; he was one of the most vocal in claiming an independent Palestinian state.

As in Turkey in 1922, in Persia, and 1927 in China, this policy of the Comintern turned out to be a disaster for the working class – because by supporting the local bourgeoisie, the Comintern drove the workers into the bloody arms of a bourgeoisie praised as “progressive”. The scope of the rejection of proletarian internationalism can be seen in an appeal of 1931 by the Comintern, which had by then become a mere tool of Stalinism in Russia: “We appeal to all communists to wage a struggle for national independence and for national unity, not only within the narrow boundaries which imperialism and the interests of the ruling family clans of each Arab country artificially created, but to wage this struggle on a broad pan-Arab front for the unity of the entire orient”.

The struggle within the Comintern, between opportunist concessions to movements of "national liberation" on the one hand, and the defence of proletarian internationalism on the other, can be seen in the opposition of different Jewish delegations to the Baku Congress

 A “delegation of Mountain Jews” could still give voice to a veritable contradiction in terms, declaring that “Only the victory of the oppressed over the oppressors will bring us to our sacred goal – the creation of a Jewish communist society in Palestine. The Jewish Communist Party delegation (Poale Zion, previously linked to the Jewish Bund) put forward the call to “settle and colonise Palestine on communist principles”.

The Central Bureau of the Jewish Sections of the Communist Party of Russia vigorously opposed the dangerous illusions of setting up a Jewish communist community in Palestine and the way the Zionists used the Jewish project for their own imperialist purposes. Against the division between Jewish and Arab workers, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party of Russia underlined: “With the assistance of imperialism’s Zionists servants, Britain’s policy aims at drawing away from communism a portion of the Jewish proletariat by arousing in it national feelings and sympathies for Zionism (...) We also sharply condemn the attempts by certain Jewish left Socialist groups to combine communism with adherence to Zionist ideology. This is what we see in the program of the so-called Jewish Communist Party (Poale Zion). We believe that in the ranks of fighters for the rights and interests of the working people there is no place for groups that have in one form or another maintained Zionist ideology, concealing behind the mask of communism the nationalist appetites of the Jewish bourgeoisie. They are using communist slogans to exert bourgeois influence on the proletariat. We note that during all the time that the mass Jewish workers’ movement has existed, the Zionist ideology has been foreign to the Jewish proletariat (...) We declare that the Jewish masses envisage the possibility of their social-economic and cultural development not in the creation of a ‘national centre’ in Palestine, but in the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the creation of socialist Soviet republics in the countries where they live.” (Baku Congress, September 1920).

But as tensions between Jewish settlers and Palestinian workers and peasants grew, the degeneration of the Comintern as it slid into subservience to the Russian state led to a split between the increasingly stalinised Comintern and the communist left, on the Palestine question as on others. While the Comintern pushed the Palestinian workers to support "their own" national bourgeoisie against imperialism – the Left Communists recognised the effects of the British policy of divide and rule and the disastrous consequences of the Comintern position, which led the workers into a blind alley: “ British capital has managed to hide class antagonisms. The Arabs only see the yellow and white race and the Jewish as the protégés of the latter” (Proletarier, May 1925, paper of the German Communist Workers’ Party, KAPD).

For a true revolutionary there is of course no ‘Palestine question’, there can only be a struggle of all the exploited of the Middle East, Arabs and Jewish workers included, and this struggle is part of  the general struggle of all the exploited of the whole world for communist revolution” (Bilan, no 32, 1936, Bulletin of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left; see the International Review n°110 for a reprint of two articles by Bilan on the Palestine question).



[1] The need for "Lebensraum" (literally, "living space") was the Hitlerian justification for the eastward expansion of the German "race" into regions occupied by the Slavic "subhumans".

[2] According to the logic of ethnic cleansing, the Germans and Celts would have to leave Europe and return to India and Central Asia, from where they once departed; Latin Americans of Spanish origin would have to be sent back to the Iberian peninsula. This absurd logic knows no limits: South America would have to kick out all South Americans with European or other origin, North America would have to deport all the black African slaves, not to mention the entire European population which arrived during the 19th century. Indeed we might ask whether the whole human species should not return to the African cradle from where it once started its emigration....?

Since World War II there has been an endless series of displacements: in the former Czech republic some 3 million ethnic Germans were displaced; the partition of India and Pakistan after World War II gave rise to the biggest displacement of populations in history, in both directions; the Balkans has been a permanent laboratory of ethnic cleansing; in the 1990s Ruanda offered a particularly bloody example of the massacres between Hutus and Tutsis, with between 300,000 and 1 million people massacred in the space of 3 months.

[3] ie the Communist International.

[4] Kemal Ataturk, born in Salonica in 1881, military hero in World War I as a result of his success against the Allied attack on Gallipoli in 1915, organised the Turkish National Republican Party in 1919 and overthrew the last Ottoman sultan. Subsequently was largely instrumental in founding the first Turkish republic in 1923 after the war against Greece, remaining president until his death in 1938. Under his rule, the Turkish state crushed the power of the religious schools and undertook an extensive programme of "europeanisation", including the replacement of Arabic script by Latin.