A reply to Philip Ferguson on his ACA conference report

In New Zealand, at a recent conference organised by the Anti Capitalist Alliance (ACA), the question of Palestine/Israel came up, leading to an exchange between comrades of the IBT and members of the ACA. An account of the conference distorting our position on this question was published subsequently, prompting the following response. (The ACA is a political bloc between the Maoid Workers Party of New Zealand and Philip Ferguson's revolution group.)

Having attended the Anti-Capitalist Alliance’s conference held over Labour Weekend last year, I was interested to read Phillip Ferguson’s account of it in the Workers Party of New Zealand’s paper, The Spark. While it was certainly good to see a political conference that encouraged the kind of open discussion and debate on the left that’s so critical to the forging of a revolutionary movement – in contrast to the kind of heavy-handedness, or downright exclusionism, practiced by most left groups - there was one aspect of the report that I thought didn’t fairly represent the views of my organisation, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). In summarizing the discussion on the history of the Zionist transformation of Israel/Palestine from imperialist mandate to imperialist-sponsored enclave, Phil claims that "one small left group" (in fact, the IBT), put "abstract calls for class unity" of Hebrew-speaking and Palestinian workers "above the concrete need for support for the Palestinian struggle".

That is not the position we ever put forward in the course of the discussion. Adaire from the IBT was the first person to speak after Don Carson’s lengthy and informative overview of the history of the Middle East. She made the point that Don had made no suggestion as to how the Palestinians might break out of the quagmire of continual subjugation and a possible future of forced population transfers. Adding a note of optimism to what was a pretty gloomy picture, Adaire argued that it was necessary – and possible – for Palestinian and Hebrew-speaking workers to forge a common struggle against both oppressive Zionism and the rotten misleadership of Arafat and co. The only basis for working-class unity – across the national divide – was a clear and unambiguous socialist agenda. Another IBT speaker pointed out that there are some important historical precedents – for example on the Haifa docks – of joint struggle between Hebrew-speaking and Palestinian workers.

It should hardly be necessary to point out that, as well as arguing for a strategy of working-class unity, we enthusiastically joined in the rally and march on the Saturday, against the impending war on Iraq and in defence of the Palestinians. Of course we are for full citizenship rights for Palestinians, and for Israel to get out of the occupied territories.

And of course concrete support for the Palestinian struggle around these kinds of immediate demands is not in any way counter-posed to a strategy based on working-class unity, as Phil seems to think – far from it. In fact, defence of Palestinian rights against the Zionist state is a crucial part of the programme around which that unity of Hebrew-speaking and Palestinian workers must be forged, as Bill from the IBT pointed out in the discussion. A revolutionary movement in Israel/Palestine that doesn’t champion Palestinian rights and vigorously oppose their oppression cannot succeed. In this sense Phil is quite right to say that you must distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressed and that of the oppressors.

As we said at the conference, there are really only two options: one is a struggle of nation against nation, which the Palestinian people will most certainly continue to lose – the other is a strategy focusing on unity along class lines, which by contrast offers some prospect for victory. So concretely, the nationalism of the oppressed cannot be a strategy for national liberation in this situation. Palestine’s national rights as well as rights to land, culture and language must be defended. To the extent that nationalist forces are in military conflict with the armed power of the occupiers and oppressors, in this case Zionist capitalism, then we are on the side of the former – while expressing absolutely no confidence in their political and ideological leadership. But as Lenin argued, nationalism as an ideology and programme for action is always counter-posed to the strategy of socialist revolution.

It’s similar in New Zealand in some ways. Maori nationalist ideology presents no solution to the problem of Maori oppression. But at the same time the struggle of Maori is crucial to the future of socialist revolution in this country. A revolutionary movement must oppose the oppression of Maori, and not just through demands that address their experience as workers (for example, fighting unemployment through the demand for a shorter work week with no loss of pay), but also through immediate demands that address their oppression as Maori (for example, defence of the right to receive their entire education, or as much of it as they wish, in the language of their choosing and the right to deal with the state in the language of their choosing). We think it’s ironic that the various articles on the position of Maori in revolution magazine omit any mention of these other kinds of demands, or worse dismiss them as petty-bourgeois irrelevancies, in favour of a "Maori/white, unite and fight" type of approach – or as Philip might put it, in favour of "abstract calls for class unity".

The question of Palestinian national rights and equality is particularly complicated. However it might have come about historically, the fact is that in Israel/Palestine there are two peoples with distinct national and religious identities that share a common territory – notwithstanding that the territory is very unevenly shared, expressing the existing and overwhelming predominance of the Zionist state. As we said, a strategy of nation vs. nation cannot end the oppression of the Palestinians. But even if it were successful, it would most likely mean simply reversing the terms of oppression. This kind of future – where the Hebrew-speaking population get a similarly raw deal at the hands of a triumphant Palestinian bourgeoisie – doesn’t seem to me to be much of a solution. And it’s certainly not a basis for getting Jewish workers on board. The best that nationalism can achieve, as a programme for action in this context, is another version of capitalism with its attendant exploitation of workers and the subjugation of the other people.

This kind of interpenetration of peoples on the same territory is very different from, say, the Russian/Polish situation in Lenin’s time, when he was criticising the Polish communist Rosa Luxembourg’s refusal to defend the right of Poland to secede from the Russian empire. The Poles as a people occupied a distinct territory, so kicking out the Russian rulers did not mean reversing the terms of oppression. Mind you – and it’s an aspect of that debate which is often overlooked – while Lenin opposed Luxembourg’s resistance to supporting the right to self-determination for Poland, he agreed with her that Marxists should not advocate separation at that time.

Whatever your interpretation of this discussion, it was valuable that it occurred. As were the other discussions over the weekend, particularly – at this time when imperialist forces are arrayed against Afghanistan and Iraq – those around how revolutionaries should respond to imperialist wars. The discussions brought out some important differences on this question – for example, our criticism of revolution’s recent slogan of "Stop the War!" This liberal-pacifist slogan is clearly inadequate at a time when revolutionaries must be calling for the defence of Iraq and for the defeat of the US-led, and NZ-backed, imperialist forces. In the speeches made during the Saturday demo and march, the IBT was alone in making these calls.

The importance of opposing our "own" imperialists – embodied in the Leninist slogan "The main enemy is at home" – must always be emphasised. Philip’s report of the conference noted that the Saturday demo and march included the burning of the US and NZ flags outside the US embassy, to the satisfaction of everyone assembled, including us. But the original plan among the young ACA activists was to burn only the US flag – it was only through the gentle intervention of a couple of IBT comrades that the NZ flag went up as well. As we said at the time, it would have been unforgivable for NZ revolutionaries to attack US imperialism in this symbolic way without also symbolically attacking NZ’s own junior, but nevertheless enthusiastic, imperialists. Burning someone else’s flag, particularly that of the US, hardly distinguishes one from the peacenik mishmash, and smacks of little-NZ nationalism.

Finally, while we welcomed the opportunity to engage in principled and comradely debate at the ACA conference, and subsequently in a number of ACA study sessions in Wellington, it is with regret that we now find ourselves specifically excluded from any further meetings.

Comradely greetings
10 February 2003

Posted: 24 February 2003