Robespierre Monument

'The French Revolution involved great changes in the art of war…'

Applied Internationalism: Arab Nationalism and the Left, Part 2

“During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government.”–Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War

…in wars of national liberation patriotism is applied internationalism.”–Mao Zedong, “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War”

“What kind of spirit is this that makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people’s liberation as his own? It is the spirit of internationalism, the spirit of communism...”–Mao Zedong, In Memory of Norman Bethune”

An Aside on the Enduring Importance of the National Question

Capitalist rule has since its inception been defined by crises of nation and class. Where does one end and the other begin? As Cedric Robinson argued in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, the interstate Westphalian system provided competing, unevenly compensated bourgeoisies with separate institutional facilitators of profit accumulation through centralized, territorialized states. Through accompanying “nations,” these bourgeoisies were able to develop foundational myths of blood-and-soil bonds—a sound ideological tool for bourgeois political rule. With the advent of colonialism, the nationalist form of political rule became various bourgeoisies’ simultaneous advantage and weakness. The example Robinson led with in this titanic work was the British colonization of Ireland: in defining the Irish as a “race,” portrayed by the British ruling classes largely as a swarm of brutes and subhuman savages, the British bourgeoisie was for a time able to keep its “own” underclasses under wraps. British workers were given the impression that they were at least superior to the Irish “race.” From Ireland to India to Africa to North America, colonial enterprises would go on to maintain this basic ideological form and method of social control. In Robinson’s own words:

“Colonialism in America had required a different rationale: the Savage. Conveniently… English colonialism had had available to it the savagery of the Irish to draw upon. The notion had traveled well. When the need was for labor, the Irish, the poor of the metropole’s cities, the African and the native American were comfortably herded together under the notion of savagery. When the issue had been the expropriation of the lands of the natives, there was little cause to respect the claims of the savages or to comprehend their resistance as little more than savagery.” 

This sweetheart arrangement could not last forever. Eventually these Irish, themselves “infected” by the national ideal, decided they would peel away from British rule on the basis of their own national identity, thus fracturing British accumulation circuits and political strictures. The cause and effect was simple: if the build-up of British industry depended the looting Ireland of resources (investing stolen wealth into its own development projects and feeding its workers with Irish crops) and the intentional de-development of Ireland (preventing any nearby competition), then Irish resistance, both violent and non-violent, slowed or prevented British imperial ambitions, including ambitions elsewhere on the map. Through resistance leading (in prospect) to independence, Ireland could also thereby secure its own ability to industrialize. The dawn of Ireland resistance occurred through the organizing principle of nationalism: in the beginning stages, a cultural project aimed at reclaiming an erased history and a lost language, as an integral component of the struggle to reclaim land. Irish nationalism, and, in its most advanced forms, Irish republicanism and socialism, continues to provide a model for a beautifully recalcitrant anti-colonialism, in the geographic heart of Europe of all places. The freedom fighters of the Easter Rising did not simply light the torch for a 32-county republic; they could scarcely have rendered a better service for humanity as a whole than to distract the British army as its forces launched rapaciously into the inter-imperialist rivalry of the First World War. The honorable cause of Irish independence shows how a national cause may double as an anti-systemic cause, at fundamental odds with the unjust global system, depending on its objective placement within the leading players of that system.

Put another way, the cause of Irish Republicanism, like that of Pan-Arabism, eventually transformed into a simultaneous campaign for a broken homeland’s reunification and against imperialism: blows for the former necessarily serve as blows against the latter, unraveling and weakening the offending system of control by reversing and preventing its achievements and goals. For this very reason, economist Ali Kadri has criticized Arab Communist Parties for historically underestimating the power of the national question in the Arab world. For example, Kadri has argued in the context of the 20th century Arab world that the pro-Soviet Communists in Iraq actually played into Israel’s hands by opposing the formation of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria, a union forged on both nationalist and socialist grounds. This initial Communist Party approach, in actuality less internationalist than the cross-border pan-Arab trends, “underestimated the necessity of anti-Israeli struggle in the region by bowing to the Soviet strategy of detente with the US.” The anti-systemic capacities of these kinds of nationalist projects, which seek to erase colonial borders in order to establish means for independent trade as well as cross-border organizing between workers and peasants, has been helpfully described by Stephen Gowans as part of the “struggle against the international despotism of Wall Street.” Invoking the central argument of Domenico Losurdo’s Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History, Gowans also emphasizes that this current phase of Arab struggle, for national liberation against what should now in 2017 be called recolonization, is a form of class struggle waged on the plane of international relations: “The class struggle fought by Arab nationalists in Syria continues, despite the concerted efforts of Washington, its neo-colonial allies, its Arab satraps, apartheid Israel, and Leftist collaborators, to crush it.”

This is the most essential point lost on those vogue Marxists whose “internationalism” is devoid of anti-colonialism. For these self-described Marxists, anti-colonial nationalism is outdated. In this conception, a struggle such as, say, the Vietnamese Revolution, waged against US imperialism when the USSR was still around as a progressive counterweight, was emblematic insofar it could only fulfill the promises of the 1954 Geneva Accords for a reunified and nominally independent Vietnam. It did not, and indeed could not, deliver “true” socialism; it could only earn Vietnam a place at the Westphalian table, in a thoroughly liberal world system. On the economic question, Vietnam became like so many “postcolonial” states, including even South Africa after its successful struggle against apartheid, a “neoliberal regime” able to exercise some degree of military control over its borders, but unable to prevent the influx of financial capital and the rise of a local crony elite. For proponents of this viewpoint, those leftists defending Syrian sovereignty, whether on pan-Arab grounds or otherwise, are focusing exclusively on political content to the detriment of economic content. These anti-imperialist dinosaurs are thus un-Marxist in their method.

On the contrary, to insist on an arbitrary division between politics and economics is un-Marxist, and it is un-Marxist in a very particular way. This insistence necessarily dismisses everything radical about the discoveries of anti-colonial Marxist leaders historically, from Che Guevara to Thomas Sunkara, Ho Chi Minh to W.E.B. Du Bois. (It has been a habit of some quarters of the left, especially in quarters of the Western left, to argue or imply that these leaders were simply nationalists using Marxism as chimera.) Today this insistence leads to a variety of liberal conclusions about the Arab world: the “Axis of Resistance,” as a phrase describing a geopolitical bloc, is purely a propaganda tic used to hide cynical ambitions either attached to or mirroring the US bloc in its basic ambitions; the settler-colonial implant “Israel” is basically analogous in its violence to “Assad,” the head figure of a postcolonial state; and the struggles within Arab states should be treated as self-contained (even if that means, as aforementioned, analogizing “Israel” to “Assad” while the Zionist air force attacks the Syrian state along with US bomber jets). These types of arguments are remarkable for eliding the history of a very basic set of relations any Marxist ought to want to understand: what was the role of movements from below in the creation of the Axis of Resistance, as a political bloc and as a vocabulary? Why does the Zionist entity have the power to attack Syria without repercussion while the Syrian state is bombed by the US, ostensibly for actions undertaken within its own territories? What is the relationship between what the US is doing in Syria and what it is doing in Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen?

These questions are useful and necessary, and not exhaustive. Another approach for understanding the link between merely “political” anti-imperialism and economics could be to return to the example of Vietnam. If we can forgive the National Liberation Front for not having overthrown capitalism for us, we might be see how profoundly its victory over the United States affected global capitalism. The Vietnamese struggle was largely responsible for forcing the US–today’s inheritor of a 500-plus year legacy of Western colonialism–into a more precarious position of global rule. Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik make clear that this historic victory forced the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system:

Under that system the U.S. dollar was a reserve currency convertible into gold at the rate of $35 per ounce of gold. By taking advantage of this role of the dollar, the United States ran large current account deficits for maintaining its string of military bases all around the world. (This role also enabled American companies to buy up European firms with dollars printed in the United States but sanctified by the system to be ‘as good as gold.’) As the Vietnam War escalated, the U.S. current account deficit widened, and a torrent of dollars poured out of the United States, even as excess demand pressures appeared in the world economy and increased the rate of inflation to levels that could no longer be ignored (Kaldor 1976). There was therefore a rush to gold, in which President De Gaulle of France took the lead, the gold-dollar link could no longer be sustained, and the Bretton Woods system collapsed.”

True to that early lesson passed down from the Irish, the Vietnamese hampered US imperialism and, as such, the capitalism system itself. In other words, the National Liberation Front bled the United States of both blood and treasure. The blood loss created in the US the most significant social crisis its regime had ever before faced in the combined strength of the antiwar and Black liberation movements. The treasure expended forced the US to improvise a new fiat-based financial system in order to keep its empire afloat. That new system, still in effect today, is remarkable for depending overwhelmingly on one part of the world: West Asia, or “the Middle East.” What might happen to the capitalism system if US imperialism were to suffer a Vietnam-style defeat in that region?

An essay by Atif A. Kabursi and Salim Mansur titled From Sykes-Picot Through Bandung to Oslo: Whither the Arab World? offers some intriguing possible answers to that question. The premise of the essay rests on a reminder that much of what we variously call “globalization” and “neoliberalism” since the 1970s is actually a transition in ruling style in the 500-plus year course of Western colonialism, or “the system of domination and exploitation inaugurated by the conquest of Columbus in the Americas,” which following the Second World War the emergent US empire and its junior partners in Western Europe sought to reclaim against the twin threat of communism and national liberation movements. The 1945 baton-passing to the United States would inaugurate a global economy “underwritten by American power as was the post-Napoleonic order between 1815 and 1914 underwritten by British power.” Similar to how the inter-imperialist war of 1914-1945 pushed Britain and France to a point a financial weakness, the Vietnamese Revolution sapped US resources until its then-figurehead Lyndon B. Johnson “sought to wage the war by indirectly taxing American allies through pressing them to accept an unlimited flow of U.S. dollars.” This maneuver foreshadowed Nixon’s decision to float the US dollar and completely remove it from the gold standard by six years. Charles de Gaulle refused to abide by US commands, and effectively described those commands as a proposal for US global domination so extreme, even the sovereignty of its Atlanticist imperialist partners would be vulnerable to it:

“The fact that many States accept dollars as equivalent to gold, in order to make up for the deficits of any American balance of payments, has enabled the United States to be indebted to foreign countries free of charge. Indeed, what they owe to those countries, they pay, at least in part, in dollars that they themselves can issue as they wish, instead of paying them totally in gold, which has a real value, and which one possesses only if one has earned it. This unilateral facility attributed to America has helped to spread the idea that the dollar is an impartial, international sign of exchange, whereas it is a means of credit appropriated to one state.”

When the Nixon Administration went through with the decision to de-link the US dollar from gold, “the management of international exchange rates (defining the price of other currencies in terms of the U.S. dollar) became a matter of negotiations among the treasuries and central banks of the leading industrial states” with the US dollar now deemed as good as gold in all international transactions. Within this scheme, Kabursi and Mansur argue, “The place of the Middle East and the Arab economy in America’s global standing since 1945 is analogous to the place that India occupied in the British empire during the period of its global hegemony.” The key to this arrangement is well-known: oil. Unable to export much of anything besides war and capital, the US could, through total or near total control of the Arab world, at least monopolize the most essential energy source of the past century, ensuring the empire remain profitable for oil conglomerates and Wall Street speculators.

This privileged position for US currency in the global economy was earned through military blackmail, and subsequently maintained through the same. The supremacy of the US dollar and the ubiquitousness of the US military run hand in hand. And as the US extended its tentacles internationally, forced to make up the difference between its domestic consumptive capacities and its waning industrial output through the theft of the Global South, it has increasingly faced a domestic crisis as well. With the majority of US income tax dollars increasingly flowing towards military subsidizations, and the local US economy increasingly dependent on unsustainable debts and lines of consumer credit, there cannot be a “third way” for US rulers between the military might necessary to maintaining the supremacy of the US dollar and returning job security and livable wages to the US people.

The selection of Donald J. Trump to the role of the US presidency is thus a sign of the general direction of US rule in the coming years. Prior to Trump, the Council on Foreign Relations, managers of international finance traversing many fields from politics to media, had always gotten their preferred candidate in office. Trump was an exception, signaling that some sectors of the bourgeoisie see fit to drop fashionable cloaks of neoliberalism and cosmopolitanism (provided by the Obamas and the Clintons) for international finance and deal with impending unrest through a strategy of brute military confrontation–in other words, the same strategy used by the US to crush rebellion overseas. In a word, routine protests and demonstrations will increasingly be treated as matters of counterinsurgency and Trump’s rhetoric will match this reality. This does not mean that Trump, in contrast to Obama and Clinton, is somehow more honest. He is a liar, but a different kind of liar meant to con a different demographic, his slogan “Make America Great Again” spouted with that hope that it will grab a layer of white Americans to serve as the front lines of domestic repression alongside cops and troops as part of a fascist pact.

In this coming period, what was always the case should become more apparent: the source of oppression and exploitation of workers in the US is the same source of oppression and exploitation of workers the world over, including and especially in the Arab world, the essential link in the chain of US hegemony. Thus, no constructive steps can be taken towards substantive socialism in the US without ending the empire and everything that goes with it, including the US military and the US dollar. Are we ready to invoke and act on the internationalist principles required to bring the end of the empire about? It begins with searching for organized projects underway at every level of possible engagement. In that spirit, we should observe that there already exist coordinated efforts to undermine the dollar among China, Russia, and Venezuela. In the Arab world, this task requires conscious attempts to link up with the organized forces of Arab liberation from US imperialism and Zionism extending from Lebanon and Palestine to Yemen. Our task cannot succeed if we prove incapable of identifying those organized structures, with no locus with which to orient ourselves and our analysis. It will not suffice to insist, as Tony Cliff did (and as do his adherents today), that “the Arab working class is the only power in the Middle East which can stop Zionism and smash imperialism” as if the “Arab working class” were self-evident as an organized front at a time when the US works overtime to divide the class along sectarian lines and to scatter its members among oceans and refugee camps.

The Arab Struggle Against Imperialism in the Age of Trump

Trump’s visit to the Arab world only increased the urgency for those in the West to locate those Arab national structures and nationalist movements taking aim at the common imperialist enemy. Let us pull back and examine his engagements in the Arab world in brief sequence. On April 5, during the very week the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat airbase in Homs, Trump met with King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House. At the meeting, a joint invasion of southern Syria by the combined forces of U.S., U.K., and Jordanian Special Forces was planned. The news passed quietly as these imperial troopers stormed Dara’a, attempted to monopolize the al-Tanf crossing, and began gunning by land for Deir ez-Zor in the east. That last location the US had been eyeing for quite some time. Recall when, in December of 2015, the Syrian government accused the US of firing missiles at a Syrian army camp in Deir ez-Zor. And recall when, in September of 2016 under the Obama regime, the US and the UK bombed an airbase just outside “accidentally” for over an hour, according to CENTCOM’s own report.

The enlistment of Jordanian services had clearly been in the works under Obama. In 2015, the US announced an increase in assistance to Jordan from $660m to $1bn annually for the 2015-2017 period. Much more recently, on May 9th, the Trump regime overruled Turkish objections to arm the Kurdish YPG more aggressively. The plan was two-fold. On the Syrian front, the US and its assorted “rebel” proxies in the southeast would move northward to meet the US and its YPG proxies, effectively forming a crescent of direct US military occupation from the north, through the east, to the south. On the Iraqi front, US military personnel would consolidate border areas. Overall, the US would swallow the land formerly occupied by its ISIS destabilization proxies. The arrival of Russian troops in southern Syria has since slowed this operation. Even more essential was the directive of the Syrian government to move troops back to Deir ez-Zor as it faced an ISIS onslaught—effectively forestalling incoming US troops and eventually breaking the years-long siege of the city maintained by ISIS. This development undoubtedly brought the the Syrian Army and its allies closer to victory, but it would be premature to assume that the war is over, as weapons supplies are still slated to flow into Syria for years to come, albeit through more inscrutable networks than before.

As these Syrian troops were on the move towards Deir ez-Zor, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Moallem called out Jordan’s intrigues. According to SANA: “Al-Moallem said that Jordan’s role form the beginning of the crisis till today is known for us, not to mention the Military Operations Command (MOC), asserting that ‘if the Jordanian forces entered without coordination with the Syrian government they will be considered as hostile forces.’” The involvement of the Jordanian king’s troops in Syria will make clearer the regional alignments–who is progressive and who is reactionary–that Obama so successfully obscured during his presidential tenure, as the embrace between King Abdullah and the Zionist entity becomes more public. The people of Jordan, mostly Palestinian in origin and militantly pro-Palestine in disposition (boasting, for instance, one of the strongest BDS coalitions in the world), recently launched a massive uprising in solidarity with al Quds around the same time that Mohammad Jawawdeh, a 16-year-old Jordanian, was murdered by an Israeli embassy guard just outside of Amman. As The Atlantic quoted one Palestinian in Jordan at the time: “It’s all related, Al Aqsa and the existence of this embassy. The king didn’t do anything while our people were killed… “We as Jordanians are with Jerusalem and Palestine, and we refuse any normalization or engagement with the Zionist government.” The people’s rage was not directly solely at the Zionists, but also at the Jordanian regime. It is, after all, nowadays an open fact that the CIA paid Abdullah’s predecessor, Hussein, in the millions beginning in the early 1970s in return for favors on the Palestinian issue. That Trump works in such a way as to bring this history and set of relationships back to the surface should be celebrated and exploited.

The deal for de-escalation zones have left Syria’s external relations in limbo. Russia’s presence certainly discourages full-blown NATO invasion in the style of Libya. It also suggests the possibility of de facto partition, and Russia’s ongoing open friendly enough relations with the Zionist entity place a question mark on its willingness to back ongoing Arab efforts to expel occupying Zionist forces from Syria. The Syrian government, however, will continue dealing with its own pressures from an anti-Zionist public. On this count, it is important to take note of the Syrian government’s maneuvers, in deed as well as public outreach, since it became apparent that Trump would follow the US establishment directives for destabilization in Syria. In fact, the Syrian leadership anticipated Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia in advance of much of the world—and responded militarily, albeit indirectly and therefore subtly. The pan-Arabist journalist Abdel Bari Atwan published an article on March 17, 2017, arguing that the Syrian decision to attack and down a Zionist jet on that day in Syrian airspace was in fact a riposte to the emerging consensus between Trump and King Salman on the need to address the “Iranian threat.” In undertaking the dangerous decision to attack a Zionist military asset, the Syrian Arab Army was, in Atwan’s estimation, recommitting itself to its fundamental creed in recalling its biggest and primary enemy: the Zionist entity. One might add that the decision signaled a recommitment on the Syrian leadership’s behalf, after some wavering language about the possibility of working with Trump, to not only the Resistance Axis in the region, but to anti-colonialism worldwide. Bashar al-Assad’s April, 2017, interview with Telesur was thus far the most radical critique of colonialism and imperialism he has made in English, ensconced as it was in an internationalist appeal to the peoples of Venezuela and South America, linking their plight to that faced by the peoples of Iran, Russia, and Korea. The times—which is to say, the American war of aggression against Syria—have pushed him further into this direction. His comments amounted to a searing critique of the role of capital in the war to unseat him:

“The American President has no policies. There are policies drawn by the American institutions which control the American regime which are the intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, the big arms and oil companies, and financial institutions, in addition to some other lobbies which influence American decision-making. The American President merely implements these policies, and the evidence is that when Trump tried to move on a different track, during and after his election campaign, he couldn’t. He came under a ferocious attack. As we have seen in the past few week, he changed his rhetoric completely and subjected himself to the terms of the deep American state, or the deep American regime. That’s why it is unrealistic and a complete waste of time to make an assessment of the American President’s foreign policy, for he might say something; but he ultimately does what these institutions dictate to him. This is not new. This has been ongoing American policy for decades.”

The times have also pushed Assad to back up rhetoric with action—which leads us back to the role and strategy of the PFLP to restore to the Palestinian cause its original pan-Arabist content. Again in March, Assad traveled to Tunisia (a site of ongoing popular unrest) to speak to the Popular Front for Tunisian national parties on the pressing need under present conditions to adopt “a collective progressive pan-Arab project through a deep party and social dialogue,” according to SANA. In this iteration, Arabism is understood in traditional terms, but now as an ideological buttress against Wahhabism and sectarianism. The Wahhabists’ war—committed in conjunction with and made possible by imperialism—marks “one of the most dangerous manifestations of the terrorist war waged on Syria and the region,” which “aims at undermining the Arab identity and culture and deforming the concept of affiliation to Arabism and the homeland through disseminating extremist mentality that is based on canceling the other.” Earlier, in July of 2016, Assad had traveled to Lebanon to consult with and address a new coalition of nationalist and leftist organizations, of which the Syrian government is part, calling itself the “Progressive Arab Front.” The point of the conference was to re-affirm the principles of Arabism against the tide of sectarian violence sweeping the region. Parties in the coalition also include Al-Murabitoun (or the Independent Nasserite Movement) and the PFLP.

On April 19th, on the cusp of joining a massive Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, PFLP Secretary General Ahmed Sa’adat explicitly called for conjoining analytically the daily Zionist assaults on Palestine to the imperialist project across the region, most pressingly where direct war has been launched (for our purposes, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen). He spoke on the pressing need to “confront these projects aimed at the liquidation of our national cause.” An essential part of the way out of this crisis, as Sa’adat sees it, is to confirm that “the mobilization of the Palestinian role is capable of providing a real climate for resistance to these projects”—a task to which over 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners committed themselves in voluntarily emptying their stomachs as Irish Republicans as well as past Palestinian resisters have done before. (True to Sa’adat’s Arabist call, the prisoners’ strike extended to Zionist dungeons outside of historic Palestine; Siqdi al-Maqt, the Syrian resister imprisoned for exposing Zionist-al Qaeda coordination in the occupied Golan Heights, has also joined the strike.) Sa’adat added:

“The most prominent, central task which can play a decisive role in this direction is to rebuild the national-democratic movement and its extensions in each country to fill the vacuum that has opened the door to all forms of international intervention in Arab internal affairs. The Progressive Arab Front, launched last year, can be an important step in that direction… building the Arab Progressive Front and expanding its ranks to activate its role on the overall level to bring about integration between the Arab and Palestinian dimensions of the struggle and to mobilize the Arab masses to counter the dissipation of the Arab national movement and rise out of the current impasse of the Arab nation. I hope that the Front’s next national Congress will further develop to awaken and indeed double this role, in proportion to the size of the responsibility placed upon it as an organization and as a national leftist democratic framework.”

On May 15th, on the commemoration date of the Nakba, the Arab Progressive Front released an important statement: “No to a New Baghdad Pact!”—a reference to Trump’s schemes to form an “Arab NATO,” set to include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt. Among the points emphasized in the statement were: a condemnation of the joint US-UK-Jordanian invasion of southern Syria; a warning that the US wants to re-ignite civil war in Lebanon; an affirmation of support for the Palestinian prisoner strike and recent people’s struggles in Tunisia; and words of concern on the dangerous repercussions of Hamas’ revised charter, as what is being called “deal of the century” aims to liquidate the Palestinian cause.

What is “the deal of the century”? Only the latest of many imperialist attempts to liquidate the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian cause, the central nerve point for so many pan-Arab and pan-Islamic aspirations, must be liquidated as even an idea in order for the Zionist entity to live and the American empire to dominate the world free from contestation. Imperialists argue over how to liquidate the Palestinian cause: co-optation or brute force? Oslo was one such attempt at co-optation. On those terms, it was rather brilliant, as it isolated “radical” elements by inviting centrists to the negotiating table. The economic aspect of Oslo, bound within the Paris Protocol, ensured that police duties of the West Bank occupation would fall to the rank-and-file Palestinian soldiery of the Palestinian Authority, armed with American weaponry and unable to imagine upward mobility outside of such ugly work. Oslo nonetheless proved powerless to stop the Intifada. Palestinians continue to resist, sharp and relentless. One of the more insidious ideas hatched for co-optation, to kill the Palestinian Revolution with a whimper rather than a bang, came from Yigal Allon (of Labour and not Likud, it must be noted) in the days of Black September: squelch the two-state solution and replace the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with either “the United Jordanian and Palestinian State” or the “the Federal Republic of Palestine and Jordan.” With such a move, the Zionist movement would persist with its nasty century-long slog to remake the region according to its interests.

And now “the deal of the century,” the Trump regime’s own unique strategy to liquidate the Palestinian cause. According to a report from Middle East Monitor, working from a direct translation from a Hebrew commentary in Haaretz, the plan has gone as follows: first, make a pledge to the Saudi monarchy to support it even more steadfastly against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thereafter, “Saudi Arabia may allow Egypt to have a foothold along the eastern coast of the Red Sea so as to assuage the public outrage in Egypt in the aftermath of the decision by Egyptian President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi to hand over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia.” Egypt would then “concede an area in the north of Sinai to be annexed to the Gaza Strip where a Palestinian state will be established”—thus, the Palestinian pseudo-state, that pathetic scrap of enclosed land perennially dreamt up by Zionist planners eager for Palestinians to shut up and accept their subjugation, will land in Egypt rather than Jordan or the West Bank. Israel’s only role will be to annex its existing settlements in the West Bank and decide which lands in the West Bank are suitable to Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority’s only prescribed job will be to look happy and foolish and offer a salute complete with a “yes, sir!” Of course, the Palestinians will resist still. That deteriorating racist crank Donald Trump assumes Palestinians are as beguiled as the leadership America forced on them; but the narcotic of Oslo could not lull the Palestinian Revolution to slumber, and so neither will this tawdry sequel.

The role of Hamas in this proposed deal is perhaps murky, but as the Progressive Arab Front pointed out, it did not for the moment bode well that the organization’s revised charter “considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.” The real “formula of national consensus” lies at the intersection of liberation and return, and nowhere else. This turn of phrase about the “two-state solution,” unofficially and offhandedly made by Khaled Meshaal over the years, conspicuously came only five years after Meshaal fled Damascus for Doha. Yet the combined Saudi-UAR-Egyptian-Jordan isolation of Doha provided again an opportunity (if a forced one) for Hamas to re-join the Axis of Resistance. The offensive against Qatar was nonetheless consistent with the broad outline of the so-called “Deal of the Century”—if Trump could gain Saudi participation by committing the US to increased covert aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran (the first attack of which occurred on June 7 of this year), then he could gain full Egyptian participation by taking a harder line against the Muslim Brotherhood and all of its affiliates, including Hamas. The future place of Hamas in the Palestinian national movement remains to be seen, especially as it dissolves its government in Gaza based on PA demands. But if Hamas does end up softening the resistance plank of its national program, Palestine Islamic Jihad will be well prepared to take its place as the Islamic cornerstone of that movement. But overall the remaining Palestinian resistance factions will remain jubilant and the US anti-imperialist left will still have to find a way to relate to it.

The Meaning of Solidarity in the Global North

As the mad-scramble for Syria’s east paces on, and the US secures strongholds in Syria for joint military rule of those territories with its Zionist allies, anti-imperialists will have to ask how various grassroots projects can be brought together, namely some kind of marriage between pro-Palestine movements and the scattered remains of the anti-war movement. Because the Arab world lies at the nexus of so many material foundations of US imperial rule worldwide—oil, the dollar, weapons—it is crucial that these joint ventures commit themselves, in the long-term, to the defeat of the US military-political project in the Arab world. In short, a deeper, more serious, more uncompromising internationalism is needed. Pro-Palestinian politics in the United States, still the centerpiece of Arab and Muslim unity at a time of deepening divisions, faces a dilemma. In its earliest stages, Palestinian solidarity in the US was smaller but truer to regional context, Arab nationalist and focused on the liberation of the whole of Palestine. Over the past decade especially, the movement has grown considerably through mass politics imbued with the language of human rights. How to combine the stronger aspects of both of these trends—the militancy of the former and the numbers of the latter? How do those acting and thinking in support of Palestinian human rights go from being critics of Israel and its policies to being actual partisans of the Palestinian and Arab causes? And if that task should prove too arduous in a period of rising reaction, how to create the conditions within a mass movement that can protect, rather than reject, its most radical sub-units?

If anti-imperialists are willing to engage these questions, it should be clear, as a much-needed first order of consensus, that existing attitudes towards Syria among Western leftists are overall poorly devised. The most popular choice for partisan commitment in Syria, the YPG and YPJ, does not challenge the global US-led order, and even increasingly aids and supplements it. YPG’s collaboration with US-Zionist imperialism began as a matter of convenience, wherein the YPG could gain air cover and weaponry in their existential battle with ISIS while the US could gain a military foothold in Northern Syria in the form of Special Forces operators and bases. The relationship slowly began to transform as the YPG began to run favors for the US (and British and French) Special Forces; one report in Le Monde claimed that YPG and YPJ fighters went so far as to guard an abandoned Lafarge factory occupied by imperialist troops.

After Trump’s inauguration, the YPG’s support for the US only increased, leaving the realm of mere tactical convenience and actually affecting the subjective politics of PYD leadership. In one interview, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) co-chair Ilhem Ahmed announced that her organization would not allow SDF-held territories to become Iranian “corridors.” The timing of the announcement came suspiciously soon after the commencement of the Trump plan to target and isolate Iran. Further comment from Ahmed, this time to Al-Riyadh newspaper on June 18, described Saudi Arabia as a force for regional stability. What business does the leadership of a Kurdish liberation movement in Syria (and, depending on how wide one’s scope, in Turkey), ostensibly dedicated to socialism, have taking vocal sides in a regional dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran if they do not have the intention of doing the US’s regional bidding, i.e., serving as proxy?

The experience of the YPG and YPJ holds one potential commonality and lesson with that of Zionism: the subjective politics of a given movement—its affirmations and words, whether relating to “socialism” or “revolution”—cannot alone transcend its objective position in the global system. Many of the Zionists who colonized Palestine in 1948 were, after all, self-proclaimed socialists. What is the point of a socialism built on the bones of a so-called “inferior” race if not to build fascism? Some will object to any analogy to Zionism and insist that the Kurds are not imported European settlers, but rather an oppressed people of the region. Yes, the historic plight of the Kurdish people remains real—but even the best intentions can be co-opted by imperialism, sometimes overnight. What’s more, the anti-capitalist value of the Kurdish struggle in NATO-member Turkey remains intact, as the Kurdish struggle remains the lynchpin of left-wing and dissident activity within Turkey’s borders. There is furthermore a proud history of left-wing, pro-Kurdish assistance to the cause of Palestinian liberation. And yet it nonetheless remains true in the case of the YPG and YPJ that a “socialist” enclave run by the US empire, the national head of the global capitalist system, is absurd on its face. Would the communes of Jordan 1970 and Lebanon 1976, or even the communes of today’s Venezuela, hold any anti-systemic value, or any material grounds for Global South solidarity, if they were effectively governed by US military advisors?

Some partisans of the YPG and YPJ still maintain that the Rojava militias recognize the US as the face of capitalism, that the alliance is only temporary. These are nice words sutured to rosy sentiment, but those anti-imperialist forces based in the US are still required to think in terms of the concrete strategy of opposing the US, lest they liquidate their own raison d’être. If a rupture does form between the YPG and the US, as Rex Tillerson seems to anticipate, without an alliance to the Arab nationalists and Muslim resisters of the Resistance Axis, no such defeat of the US military will be possible. In the meantime, the YPG and YPJ are helping the US and its chemical weapons to invade Raqqa, a verifiably non-Kurdish territory, and they continue to expand relations with the regional enemies of Arab liberation, and they deepen the foothold of US and Zionist military presence in Syria, perfectly reminiscent of the KDP protectorate in Northern Iraq–a nightmare scenario with long-term ramification for other peoples in the region, from Palestine to Yemen, Lebanon to Iraq.

“Socialism,” declare the anarchists and democratic socialists. If so, it is “socialism” once more built on the corpses of the Arab masses. And like Zionism, this preferred idea of socialism is a product of national chauvinism among Western leftists, preventing them from searching for strategic allies in the objective conditions in order to build simultaneous wars of attrition against empire, waged internally and externally, through the combined strength of actually existing resistance to imperialism. Those objective forces can include organizations that do not fall under the self-defined “socialist” camp, so long as they effectively work towards the defeat of the United States in the international arena on an anti-colonial basis—a material precondition for substantive socialism, at any rate. Such organizations include Hezbollah in Lebanon and Ansar Allah in Yemen, both of which share necessary animosity towards the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as the main sources of regional reaction; traverse both Islamic and Arab nationalist language in their resistance rhetoric; and consciously work to upend Sykes-Picot borders for both pan-Arab and pan-Islamic alliances.

To embrace their struggles in a resistance capacity is not at all to betray the organized left in the Arab world, for their struggle against the twin reserve forces of imperialism in the Arab world—Zionists and takfiris—serves to protect Arab workers from massacre and reaction. This is a simple, essential principle: there can be no Arab working class to organize and support if the Arab working class is fragmented, scattered, and dead. The Lebanese Communist Party promoted this principle at the height of the 2006 onslaught against Lebanon, even as internal disagreements about social and economic policy persisted between the LCP and Hezbollah: “We agree on liberation of land and nation,” their statement of support to Hezbollah’s resistance read.

The employment of this strategy, with antiwar and antiracist movements once again becoming cornerstones of US left activity, would in the long term identify the United States, as an idea and nation hatched for an imperial rule of white settlers, as enemy territory. In some ways, these politics would mark a return to the Vietnam War era, or even the Vietnam era mentality, through which US revolutionaries actively desire and exploit divisions among US rulers, between the intelligence agencies and various bureaus, and within the Democratic and Republican Parties. Undoubtedly, we must carefully outline the errors of the past and the specificities of the present; more important, we must show patience and engage in mass work, the real key of which is to turn local work internationalist as opposed to trying to impose internationalism as an abstract principle from the top-down. Alas, the practical and mundane aspects of this task, which is where the real work lies, must be the subject of its own future essay. But we must also know, as a general point of reference, where we wish to head. If the US has decided that its continued global domination still depends on crushing revolution in the Arab world, then we must uphold Arab resistance to US domination. We must not, for instance, as so many left-liberal academics have done, mourn the “loss” of Aleppo to the Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah; rather, we must celebrate Hezbollah’s victory, for in Aleppo they delivered disaster to the US and its plans for the region for the third time, following Lebanon in 2000 and 2006.  And ultimately, as with the Vietnamese Revolution against the United States before it, we must treat the Arab Revolution as part of our own revolution.

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The Firmest Bonds: Arab Nationalism and the Left, Part 1

Note: This article mainly deals with the genesis of one major manifestation of organized Arab nationalism, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN). A deeper examination of this subject would require a broader reading, of the left wings of Nasserism, Ba’athism, Fateh, and the various Arab Communist Parties–subjects which I certainly hope to come back to. The information on MAN contained herein is drawn from the tireless work of the revolutionaries, scholars, and journalists who made it a priority to preserve the history of the organization: namely, Mohammed Jamal Barout in Harakat al-Qawamiyeen al-‘Arab:Harakat al-Qawmeeyin al-Arab: al-Nash’a, al-Tatawur; Hani al-Hindi in al-Haraka al-Qawmiyya al-Arabiyya fi’l Qarn al-Eshrin; Basil al-Kubaisi in The Arab Nationalists Movement 1951-1971: From Pressure Group to Socialist Party; Walid Kazziha in Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and His Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism; Mohsen Ibrahim in Limatha Munathamat al-Eshtirakiyyin al-Lubnaniyyin?; and Abdel Razzaq Takriti in Monsoon Revolution: Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976 and, co-edited with Karma Nabulsi, the Palestinian Revolution website, an invaluable resource. I would like to add a special thank you to Mahmood Najeeb al-Mahmood, whose own research, insights, and advice played a major role in the writing of this post.

In recent decades, especially over the past decade, Arab nationalism has fallen somewhat into disrepute across wide sectors of the Western left. Often reduced to individuals such as Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, Arab nationalism and its many anti-colonial social struggles, not to mention its crucial intersections with Marxism and left-wing politics more broadly, have received undue attention. Something to consider: without Arab nationalism, there could not have been a widely popular Arab left. It is to the Arab left that the global left and the international community of oppressed nations owe their left-wing critique of Zionism, a critique with worldwide anti-systemic implications.

The importance of militant anti-Zionism to an international movement against capitalism cannot be overstated. Despite the recent efforts to criticize Israel solely on the basis of its post-1967 occupations or for its apartheid legal system, anti-Zionism denotes a more complete theoretical basis that accounts for: the financial ties between imperialism and the international Zionist movement that continue to ensure Israel serves as an imperial colony in the heart of the Arab world; Israel’s crimes not only against the Palestinian people, but against all Arab peoples; and finally, Israel’s crimes against the peoples of the Tricontinental (Africa, Asia, Central/South America) as a favor-runner for US imperialism.

In short, Zionism and Israel are not the same thing. Israel is an expression of the international Zionist movement and its racist guiding ideology. The international nature of Zionism has been apparent since the early 20th century, when Theodore Herzl made his pitch to Sultan Abdulhamid, Chaim Weizmann to anti-Semitic British statesmen, and the World Zionist Organization to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. This nature remains apparent today, as just last year Mossad found and assassinated Comrade Omar Nayef Zayad, who had been living fugitive years after escape from colonial imprisonment, in a Palestinian embassy in Bulgaria. Of course, any overemphasis on Zionism alone will result in whitewash of imperialism. For the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), international Zionism formed only one-fourth of the total enemy, which must be understood as a whole to be properly confronted. The other three enemies remain Israel, imperialism, and Arab reactionary regimes.

The relationship between Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism is essential. Although Arab Communist parties punched above their weight and cast influence beyond their cadre proportion due to sharp organization practices, the most successful communist and socialist movements in Arab society arose out of some form of Arab nationalism, whether Nasserism or Ba’athism or the unique nationalism posited by the organization I will deal with primarily in this essay, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN). Many Nasserists and Ba’athists (as well as Communists) would go on to make great sacrifices for the Palestinian cause, staffing the cadre ranks of guerrilla factions such as Fateh, Saiqa, and the Palestinian Liberation Army. The reason for this is rather simple: the USSR had during the 1950s discredited (for a time) Marxism and communism with its early recognition of Israel, the creation of which nothing short of disastrous for all of Arab society, a particularly brutal continuation of the colonial processes facing down Arabs since the Sykes-Picot slice-up of their once contiguous homeland.

The pan-Arab vision for the reunification of the Arab homeland has undergone a series of major theoretical changes informed by shifting political contexts since its first articulations, but one constant feature has been acknowledgement of the inextricability of those reunification efforts from the cause for Arab independence from imperialism. Unsurprisingly, imperial powers (the United States, Britain, France) have taken keen note of this development and steadfastly opposed it through a series of measures both overt and covert, economic and military, to ensure the elimination of Arab nationalism and pan-Arab aspirations; those ugly duties have now fallen squarely on the task sheet of Trump as his handlers in the oil monopolies and war industries whisk him from imperial station to station in the Arab world, from one ridiculous pageant show to the next. The knowledge of what Trump is up to, what his sordid visitations signify in the ongoing dialectic revolution and counterrevolution in the Arab world, remains in the purview pan-Arab proletarians, who so often understand him and the forces moving him a million times more clearly than any think-tank or IR goofball hoarding conference checks in Washington or Doha. It was the Palestinian revolutionary Nayef Hawatmeh who noted in the early 1970s that the United States was pursuing a long-term imperial plan whose completion required the destruction of the “petit-bourgeois nationalist regimes” (meaning Iraq and Syria), a move intended to throw the cause of Arab national liberation into a dark grave.

PLO representatives in Jordan, including Yasser Arafat, Nayef Hawatmeh, and Kamal Nasser.

The attempts of the United States to attack, destabilize, and dethrone independent Arab nationalism date back to the new structural role it took on in the wake of the British empire and French empires’ limited recessions after suffering calamitous blows to their respective economies and militaries during the Second World War. As Britain and France began slowly and reluctantly to vacate their colonies, the United States picked up the repressive slack, at first underwriting British and French control of places like Palestine and Vietnam before eventually taking command of overlord duties altogether. The US’s new strategic plan for West Asia in particular became known as the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” after the administration that designed its initial phases. As Salim Yaqub put it in Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East, “Two issues… Zionism and imperialism, aroused Arab resentment against the West and created opportunities for Soviet encroachment, raising doubts in American minds about Britain’s long-term ability to hold the region for the West.” Chiefly, the US was concerned with safeguarding what had become the most important resource to the world economy: oil.

The regional developments that might be called exceptions to this general rule between the US and Arab nationalism since 1948 involve Egypt and Iran. Through American economic and diplomatic pressure as well as Anwar Sadat’s open willingness to grant concessions, the US was able to turn Egypt totally into a client state, resulting in some of the most extreme betrayals of Palestine made by Arab states, up to and including General Sisi’s on and off attempts to lock Palestinians in Gaza. Iran provides a case in which an Islamic ideological framework supplements attempts to achieve some degree of relative political and economic sovereignty, although it should be noted that Hezbollah in Lebanon—which maintains a critical relationship to the Islamic Republic, ideologically and militarily—has been able to succeed in large part due to its fusion of “Islamist” and Arab nationalist sentiments. Taken together, the cases of Egypt and Iran demonstrate that the US is not opposed to Arab nationalism per se, but to any and all attempts at independence from its global grip.

Despite this caveat, the historic relationship between Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism continues apace, with the diminished but nonetheless living option of pan-Arabism now anchoring a counter-vision for opposition to Sykes-Picot than that provided by Daesh. For example, both the Arab National Front and Daesh (and even the majority Kurdish YPG for that matter) in theory favor the elimination of national borders in the Arab world and the overturn of Sykes-Picot. Nonetheless, these opposing visions could not be any more different in political content, with Daesh endorsing feudalist forms of social organization while objectively serving the interests of capitalism and imperialism. For any socialist and secular pan-Arab parties, as well as for any solidarity actors seeking to facilitate the defeat of imperialism in the region, there remains an old question, dating back to Marx himself, of how to fuse the national question with socialism, which in any event requires a careful and balanced reading of both objective and subjective factors. First we must turn to some basic history of the Arab liberation struggle and the Palestinian liberation struggle that formed within it.

A Test Case: Arab Nationalism and the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN)

Nayef Hawatmeh, Secretary-General of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), offered a simple formula for understanding the presence of Zionism in the Arab world: “…the conflict with the Zionist movement is historically linked to the relationship obtaining between Zionism and imperialism (British imperialism up to 1948, American imperialism after that date). Thus the struggle for the liberation of Palestine is against Zionism and imperialism.” The secret deal between Britain and France on the close of the First World War in 1916, combined with anti-Semitic British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s infamous 1917 declaration, sounded the tocsin across the region for colonization and partition.

Any glance at the map of modern day West Asia combined with a basic working knowledge of Arab society under the Ottoman Empire leads inexorably to the conclusion that the carved regionalisms of Sykes-Picot in the Levant (Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon) were both crimes and absurdities. People boasting longtime business, familial, and cultural links between, say, Damascus and Mosul found themselves divided from each other over night, belonging to separate states. Today one could theoretically drive the distance from Beirut to Baghdad in the span of ten hours. (Imagine the beauty, the scenery!) In reality, one would be unable to do it, hindered by military checkpoints propped up amid war zones. This is the enduring legacy of what Lenin deemed “the agreement of the colonial thieves” after the Bolsheviks discovered the agreement, made in deep secret by British and French conspirators and approved by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, in government archives before publishing a copy of the agreement in Izvestia newspaper on November 24, 1917 for the peoples of the world to see.

Mark Sykes (left) and François Marie Denis Georges-Picot.

None of this is to say that the imperialists should have simply carved land with sharper attention to local conditions. It is only to convey the seriousness of playing around with people’s lives through partition. In fact, it could not even be said that the partition of the Arab homeland occurred without foreknowledge among world powers about the feelings and attitudes among Arab peoples of diverse religious sects. In 1919, in the wake of the Paris Peace Conference, the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey organized a Commission of Enquiry on the conditions and social relations of the non-Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire; it visited Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Anatolia, led by Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane on an appointment from then President Woodrow Wilson. The two men went on a massive opinion-seeking mission. The outcome, known today as the King-Crane Commission, came to near unanimous consensus among inhabitants in the region across “sectarian” lines: “The Moslem and Christian population was practically unanimous against Zionism, usually expressing themselves with great emphasis.” Tellingly, “This question was closely connected with that of the unity of all Syria under one Government.”

The common Zionist refrain about this record of opinion is that anti-Zionism then was as it is now: anti-Semitism. But we should not forget that Zionism had a violent streak as brutalizing as any form of colonialism well before the establishment of Israel. A good example of this violence hit news presses recently, in a Hebrew-language Ha’aretz interview with General Yitzhak Pundak, who bragged to the newspaper about how, after he moved to Northern Palestine in 1930 to become a farmer in an orange grove, he beat his “first” Arab to death with a stick. His supervisor only told him to kill more Arabs. This was Zionism at its heart, another colonizing mission from Europe with the familiar old racist ideologies perfectly intact. Pundak, and so many other early settlers like him busy creating a settler-fortified dual power in historic Palestine throughout the early 20th century, did indeed kill more Arabs, only in a professional capacity, as an army official, after the State of Israel was founded. A good colonizer, Pundak still never forgot his “first” dead Arab; he even kept the stick with which he accomplished the wretched deed.

For many Arab thinkers, these events represented a profound political and existential crisis. Obviously this crisis became further compounded by the establishment of Israel in the Arab heartland of Palestine, founded through ethnic cleansing and outright massacre, founded atop the ruins of an Arab society deeply embedded within the larger Arab world through trade, family, and culture. It was around that last point, culture, that the earliest manifestations of Arab nationalism sought to rally, to promote the advent of national consciousness transcending borders and regionalism in favor of the idea of a shared Arab language, culture, history, and geographic space. A highly important thinker to turn to in this regard is Constantine Zureiq, a history professor at the American University of Beirut who took the occasion of the Nakba to set down a basic strategy for Arab emancipation. In his seminal work “The Meaning of Disaster,” Zureiq called on Arabs to recognize soberly the “terrifying strength” of their enemy. His program emphasized those traits commonly associated with “modernity”: economic and scientific preparedness, a secular political project rooted in the separation of church and state, and national unity staked on a clearly defined Arab being and “the highest mental and spiritual values.”

Constantine Zureiq.

The importance of Zureiq lay as much in his practical activities as his intellectual and ideological output. Even while he was occupying a place of high importance at the American University of Beirut, serving dutifully in the daily functioning of one of the bourgeoisie’s most hallowed institutions for the dissemination of its ideas, he was in the 1930s living a double life as part of the Leadership Council of a secret organization of radical pan-Arabists known today (when it is known at all) as Tantheem al-Siri, or “The Secret Organization.” Zureiq’s practical activities were inspired by popular unrest, first of all in Palestine, from 1936 to 1939 the site of an intense revolution against British and Zionist colonization efforts and the headquarters of revolt for key Arab leaders such as Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and Amin al-Husseini. Just as formatively for Zureiq, Iraq developed in the 1930s into a veritable test lab for Arab nationalist organizations and movements, culminating in a failed 1941 coup attempt led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani to depose the British-backed government of Nuri Said and King Faisal.

It was there in Iraq that Tantheem al-Siri made its greatest impact. Within its ranks lurked Yusef al-Sabawi, who served as Iraqi Minister of Economics under the short-lived nationalist government of Ghazi bin Faisal, a close associate of Zureiq’s until Ghazi’s untimely death in 1939. The secret society maintained close ties with the revolutionaries in Palestine, where it was initially formed in 1935, delivering one the earliest statements of pan-Arabism. According to Aziz al-Azmeh’s account in his book on Zureiq, titled Constantine Zureiq: ‘Arabi lil Qarn al-‘Ashreen, many of the organizations at the forefront of the struggle in Iraq during World War II maintained strict codes of discipline that ultimately came to influence Zureiq’s manner and style as an educator and thinker. Notably, some of these organizations had ties to German fascism, such as al-Qamadan al-Hadeeda al-Damashqee, or the Damascene Iron Shirts, some of whose members did train with the Hitler Youth and learn German as a third language as part of delegations to Germany. In the streets and underground, the organization emphasized strict personal virtue as the highest principle, along with placing strong emphasis on physical training and gym routines as the substance of necessary manhood. Behind their activities, persistently mobilizing them, was Sami Shawkat, who ended up becoming Prime Minister of Education in Iraq in 1940, using his post to glorify martyrdom and the blood spilled for the sake of national liberation.

Inevitably this history brings discussion back to old Zionist canards about the supposedly organic relationship between Arabism and fascism. It is best to resist any such impulse, and much better to place this iteration of Arabism (subjectively rightist) in context as one moment in a complex evolution of social ideas of an ongoing anti-colonial revolt that eventually ends up firmly entrenched in the subjectivities of the political left. This is the best course for several reasons. First, the Arab revolts of the 1930s and 1940s, like the Irish and Indian national causes, generally lacked contact with the COMINTERN and its descendants, and like those causes, sought aid and succor where it was geopolitically possible, namely from Germany. Again like the Irish and Indian national causes, the Arab cause was nonetheless just, on its own terms, as a rebellion against ruthless, bloodthirsty, and racist authority; none of these causes materially aided and abetted Nazi Germany’s extermination campaigns against European Jews, but were in fact preoccupied with the liberation of their own homelands.

Second, Zureiq himself did not at all subscribe to fascist ideas. A deep believer in freedom of expression and thought, his pan-Arabism functioned as a kind of regional internationalism, a sense inculcated within him at AUB, the campus itself visual evidence of greater possibilities with its cross-section of Arab students coming from Arab lands as distant from Lebanon as Sudan and the Maghreb. Mainly Zureiq maintained from those early organizations the rigid belief in personal discipline. One anecdotal story relayed by al-Azmeh is when he reprimanded his students in the AUB library for desecrating books, which he regarded as borderline sacrosanct objects. He believed in a code, one defined by austerity and sacrifice, twin virtues that would prove important for the historic task of confronting the Zionists after the Nakba. And he believed in two kinds of people, as quoted in an interview book between him and Mahmood Suwayd titled Al-‘uruba wa Falasteen: Hiwar Shamil ma’ Constantine Zureiq: rajal al-fikr, or men of thought, and ‘ahl al-mumarasa, or men of action. As he receded from practical activity, he came to regard himself as a man of thought; his students, of the so-called “Nakba generation,” would be men of action, tutored and encouraged and trained by him.

The practical mobilization of Zureiq’s ideas—the breathing of life into this pan-Arab idea for its material realization—took shape not so much with him personally, but with his students at AUB, among whom were two young aspiring medical practitioners, both Palestinian, named George Habash and Wadi’ Haddad. Habash and Haddad formed with Zureiq a reading group, studying texts by Zureiq and another important early Arab nationalist, Sati’ al-Husri, in which they discussed fervently the problems posed by Zionism and the need for Arab reunification. These discussions led to on-campus organizational efforts from the students. Haddad, with the young Syrian Hani’ al-Hindi, formed in 1948 an organization under the name “al-Urwa al-Wuthqa,” or “the Firmest Bond,” under which they organized demonstrations against the Zionist takeover of Palestine and even called for hunger strikes.

Between 1951 and 1952, Habash and al-Hindi founded “Kata’ib al-Fada’ al-Arabi,” or the Self-Sacrifice Brigades, an outfit dedicated in theory to assassinating Arab leaders the young men deemed responsible for the Nakba. In 1951, they founded the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), along with a Kuwaiti medical student, Ahmed al-Khatib, and an Iraqi student, Hamid Jabouri. Every step of the way, these young men expressed deep compassion and concern for their specifically Arab history and context—a fact often lost when the history of Palestinian liberation is discussed in the West. For one example, “al-Urwa al-Wuthqa” was taken after the name of Mohammed ‘Abdouh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s newspaper published in Paris against the British occupation of Egypt, the title of which was itself a Qu’ranic reference. The name of one of MAN’s newspapers, al-Tha’ar, was also highly contextual. Technically translating to “revenge,” al-tha’ar differs from intiqam, also revenge, insofar as the latter describes a general process of retribution, while the former takes a more localized meaning: to carry out tha’ar is to carry out revenge for something personally stripped from you—a personal vendetta. Such was Palestine for these men after the Nakba, after many of them personally witnessed the ethnic cleansing of their villages as their families were disinherited and banished from their homeland.

al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa, ‘Abdouh’s and al-Afghani’s newspaper.

A few things stand out about early MAN efforts. First, there was its diverse Arab makeup: two Palestinians, a Syrian, a Kuwaiti, and an Iraqi. This would inform the organization’s basic working strategy, for its members to return to their respective countries and establish cells that could coordinate throughout the entire region. Second, there was the overpowering impact, the personal closeness, of the Nakba to them all—one early instance of the central role Palestine and its liberation would play for all Arab nationalist tendencies. For these men, Palestine was sacred, synonymous with politics itself. Habash and Haddad had been among those who personally experienced material loss during the Nakba and had witnessed ethnic cleansing; Hindi had fought in the 1948 war. Finally, there was the importance of the university to MAN’s existence. AUB, founded by American missionaries and to this day run by a board of rich Americans in New York City, serves as a case study of the imperial university becoming weaponized against its funders. For the founding cadre of MAN, AUB provided a space for them—from diverse reaches of the Arab world, deeply affected by the loss of Palestine—to meet each other, become introduced to new ideas, exchange analyses. The same code applied for a young Leila Khaled when she attended at a later date. In her autobiography “My People Shall Live,” Khaled described her hatred for one arrogant American teacher in particular, whom she condemned as a CIA agent in an especially incisive diatribe. She also describes her organizational efforts as part of a MAN cell. Early in the AM hours, when it was relatively safe to do so, she found herself putting up flyers for MAN until a night watchman came across her—no matter, as he soon revealed himself as a member and assisted her efforts.

In steadfast determination to break Arab peoples free from the colonial yoke, that wide-cast matrix of division and control set down by the Sykes-Picot regime, MAN raised a slogan: unity, liberty, vengeance. This was a hardline nationalist movement, largely anticommunist indeed on account of the Soviet Union’s historic complicity in Zionism and drawing inspiration at the time from the 19th century reunification efforts of Germany (one of Marx and Engel’s great political obsessions, it should be remembered) and Italy, in particular following the methods of the Carbonari. That model would not last forever. Nonetheless, MAN’s experiments throughout the 1950s would push the boundaries of the possible. Their cell network was informed by a tightly knit structure and a highly centralized command structure, a solder’s constitution in which members were given orders and expected to follow them. Their tactics were not at all limited to mere confrontation with authorities. Habash and Haddad ran a clinic in Jordan serving refugees. In 1957 Habash ran for parliament in Jordan and failed, but gained considerable confidence among the populace, spending extensive time talking to ordinary people through his campaign.

By the mid-1950s MAN was strategically advancing its propaganda efforts, with Habash publishing in 1954 the magazine al-Rai’ (The Opinion) in Lebanon as well as al-Tha’r. In an attempt to bridge gaps between campus and larger communities, particularly the poor in Arab society, they pitched their message to refugee camps. Their message was provocative, radical; in 1954, Habash was forced to go underground when the Jordanian authorities pursued him. The output of al-Rai’ was initially broadly Arab nationalist, like MAN itself, which attempted (and unsurprisingly failed) to contain threats of eclecticism and internal disputes by ruling against all ideological debates. The character of MAN’s nationalism would change with the titanic ascent of Gamal Abdel Nasser. At first, MAN’s publications were highly critical and skeptical of Nasser’s sincerity—they had after all heard plenty hot anti-Zionist rhetoric from Arab leaders before. Their view became more positive in 1956, when Nasser’s successful seizure of the Suez Canal boosted popular prospects for an anti-colonial Arab nationalism.

The Nasserist Turn

Nasser’s decisive action is sometimes reduced to a phrase or sentence: he nationalized the canal. It cannot be overemphasized just how spectacular and dangerous was the decision and act. On July 26th, Nasser proceeded to give a long, winding speech highlighting the history of British colonialism in Egypt, the continued denial to Egypt to pursue a self-determined path, and the pressing need for liberation. Unbeknownst to the crowd as well as the world powers, Nasser had beforehand privately convened a meeting with the Command Council of the Revolution. These men were Nasser’s trusted cadre, several of whom had been hardened through the experience of the 1948 war and had developed their collective tactical edge through participation in the Free Officers’ Movement against King Farouk in 1952. As Nasser repeatedly uttered his code phrase in his Alexandria address—“Ferdinand des Lesseps,” the name of the French builder of the canal—the Command Council stormed the offices Suez Canal Company as gunmen. The employees were taken hostage. The company’s assets were frozen. The canal was closed to Israeli ships. The people of the region glimpsed a new model of Arab leadership, emphasizing dignity.

Nasser’s actions led directly to popular interest in his ideas, his unique formulations of Arab nationalism, distinct from competing ideologies such as Ba’athism. At the same time, the rise of Nasser represented the mass culmination of Arab nationalists working from below, yet to achieve power themselves, including Ba’athists. Still anti-Zionism, the paramount emphasis on the loss of Palestine and the crime of the Nakba, remained at the forefront of Nasser’s program, at least as a symbol (it would become apparent later on that he lacked an actual strategy to regain the whole of Palestine), as Nasser had fought as a volunteer in the 1948 war for Palestine. In his memoirs about the experience, Nasser wrote eloquently about a shared consensus between him and his comrades that their battalion was severely under-equipped to fight a serious war against a newly coalescing Zionist entity. Here was a moment of clarity at which seismic realizations crystallized into view, mainly that the fate of the Arabs was outside their control, that the scarcity of weapons in Arab soldiers’ hands, the shoddiness of the attempts to deliver those weapons seeming almost deliberate, spelled alarmingly the influence of outside powers over the lives of Nasser, his comrades, and those for whom they intended to fight. Nasser pinpointed the United Nations Security Council, suit-and-tie-clad men ruminating in New York City boardrooms, as one point of power pulling strings, (mis)directing the Arab destiny.

Nasser’s ideas received some formal elaboration in his landmark work Philosophy of the Revolution. This call to action elaborated a historic critique, a review of foreign domination of Egypt dating back to the Mamlouks. In search of a new solution and direction, in consideration of the rich diverse history and the complex cross-societal links that had defined Egypt culturally through the centuries, Nasser drew out his infamous three circles of influence, thus supplying the fertile ground for a new kind of political awakening: the Arab; the Islamic; the African. It is not difficult to imagine in reviewing these spheres the draw of Egypt and Nasser for the Bandung Generation, or why Malcolm X should have made it a point to visit him during his trip to the Arab world, when he discovered for himself the horrors of Zionism and elaborated them to an international audience. With the rise of Nasser, MAN began to recede into the political background, with some elements of the organization convinced that Nasser would deliver the necessary program to liberate Palestine. His “solution” to the “Palestinian question” came in 1964 with the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jerusalem, with Ahmed Shuqeiry of the old Palestinian bourgeoisie sitting as its chairman.

Malcolm X visits the early PLO.

Other quarters of the Palestinian movement were not so convinced by Nasser’s gesture. A cadre formed by Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar, who led the General Union of Palestinian Students, or GUPS, in Cairo), Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), inspired by the Algerian model of liberation through armed struggle, began to run commando operations against the Zionist entity in the 1950s under the name Fateh. In 1969, Fateh would take over the PLO set by Nasser; their political makeup was particularly diverse, and they represented the largest but only a single component of the PLO as a political structure. More important for my purposes here, however, were the transformations of MAN from the years 1964 to 1967, when the organization broke up: its development into regional Marxist offshoots came with its increased exposure to the rest of the colonized world and its creative application of Arab nationalism in the Leninist tradition, combined at last with a class analysis extending from the internal affairs of Arab societies to the entire web of imperialist domination. It is an evolution that attests to the ongoing importance of Arab liberation for any project aiming for imperialism’s downfall.

“The Map of the Entire Arab World”: Mao, Nationalism and the Arab Left

The first event to open up cracks within MAN was the breakup of the union between Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic (UAR), in 1961. Many members had previously held that the creation of the union in 1958 marked a turning point in history that would provide the cure to all maladies afflicting the Arab nation. Within these cracks, the debates that transpired over what exactly went wrong in the short-lived union, entered Mohsen Ibrahim, member of MAN’s Committee of Thought, a figure too often forgotten or ignored in English-language examinations of 20th century Arab history. Ibrahim came out of South Lebanon, what would become a major communist resistance milieu to which even present-day Hezbollah owes a great deal. The core of Ibrahim’s arguments was that the Arab struggle should not fall into “stage-ism” and should instead combine national liberation with a socialist program. As Walid Kazziha quoted Ibrahim in his book Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and His Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism: “The Arab question has come to mean an overall revolutionary concept which is the melting pot of the national, economic, and social ambitions of the progressive Arab masses.” Ibrahim’s emphasis on the centrality of class analysis, along with his comrade Mohammed Kishli, played an important role in defeating anti-Jewish explanations for Zionism that had earlier held some purchase in Arab nationalist circles.

Ibrahim argued for a class-based analysis of inter-Arab relations across the entire region, positing a bourgeois right-wing currents of Arab leadership against petit-bourgeois nationalists. In this survey of inter-Arab affairs, Ibrahim sketched the basic analytical skeleton of which Arab nationalists-turned-communists would later make such extensive use: Arab society, Ibrahim argued, faced a lethal alliance of imperialism (particularly US imperialism), Zionism, and the feudal Arab bourgeoisie, each of them bound essentially together through common class interests. The introduction of Marxist ideas into MAN pitted Ibrahim on one side of an emerging debate with Hawatmeh, who in 1963 had recently been booted from Iraq where he had worked extensively with the Iraqi Communist Party and absorbed their analytical frameworks and knack for organizing. They were in this stage pitted against the “old guard” of MAN, consisting of figures such as al-Khatib and al-Hindi.

According to Kazziha’s account of the open debate that broke out, Habash took the initial stage to defend MAN’s status quo organization model, but (at least to my knowledge) the scattered accounts of MAN leave some ambiguity about what Habash was up to between 1963 and 1967. His main interest lay with forming specifically Palestinian action cells out of the general MAN network; he named the outfits, dedicated mainly to military operations, Youth for Revenge and Heroes of Return. These units, along with Ahmed Jibril’s Palestine Liberation Front, would eventually form the basic foundations of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a party of the Palestinian revolutionary proletariat and peasantry. In its 1969 document “Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine,” the PFLP laid out its vision as an ideological and organizational extension of the Palestinian divisions of the MAN, incorporating a “complete leftist political view of the liberation battle proceeding from and based on scientific socialist theory.” In the early stages of the formation of the PFLP, it was “understood was that the Front would for some time continue to consist of a group of organizations, each of which would maintain its independent existence,” while these varied strands would eventually become united through the same set of educational political materials. The PFLP nonetheless dated its distinction from the MAN to a Central Committee meeting during the “July 1967 session” that declared a socialist vision for liberation. To maintain a sense of continuity as well as break from the MAN, the PFLP called for “the Movement in the service of the Front, and not the Front in the service of the Movement.”

The merits of Arab nationalism in the long-developing establishment of a viable and strong Arab left, in the development of a class-based critique of Zionism and its relationship to US imperialism, in the forging of an actual material challenge to those powers, should be entirely clear from this picture. The first merit of the project has been its scope—Leninist offshoots of MAN cropped up not only in Palestine, but also across the occupied (by British imperialism) Arabian Gulf. The second merit was popular participation, the organizational efforts towards forwarding the position of women in military and party ranks, not to mention the creation of a durable critic of and (later on) alternative to the main component (Fateh) of the PLO—it is not actually without coincidence that the organizations most sympathetic to the Syrian Arab Republic while it is under siege from imperialism are also most openly hostile to the Oslo negotiations and the farcical “peace process.” Third, as previously mentioned, these organizations’ analytical triumphs, borne through anti-imperialist experience and practice, have been absorbed by the wider global left whenever anti-Zionism is combined to anti-imperialism, as well it should and must be.

The particularities of Arab nationalism served during the MAN period as a safeguard ideology against imperialism until the objective conditions could bridge Arab nationalism to a broader—universalist, even—movement. The conditions that provided such a bridge arose in China, where Mao, not unlike the Arab nationalists of MAN, began to express skepticism of the global role of the USSR, allegedly for its backdoor promises to the United States to curb China’s nuclear capabilities. Publicly, Mao denounced the USSR for its “revisionist” leadership, heralded in his analysis by Khrushchev when denouncing the leadership of Comrade Stalin in the “Secret Speech” of 1956, and condemned it as “social imperialist.” Domestically, China confronted unique problems in its journey from an anti-colonial revolution against Japanese occupation to its construction of socialism: how to build socialism while warding off the threat of imperialist war, i.e., forced de-development?

For Mao, the answer lay in arming the communes of China. As William Hinton put it, “the Americans used all their financial and military might to support, inspire, foster, and preserve… feudal survivals and their comprador offspring” as means to subdue independent capitalist development in China, leading Mao to conclude that only socialist development, directly secured and defended by the bottom layers of society, could be successful against imperialist predations. A necessary part of that process of security and defense would be to foment a mass movement against any elements in the Party seeking to procure future privileged status that the United States could utilize for its own anti-development ends. (The appearance recently of a similar contradiction in Venezuela proves the lasting accuracy and relevance of Mao’s analysis, even if the contradiction has yet to be fully resolved in practice.) In the emergence of explosive conflict in China, between the proletariat and peasantry and the “capitalist-roaders” of the Party bureaucracy, the rejection of revisionism circulated as a twin rejection of the USSR and Liu Shaoqi’s faction of the Chinese Communist Party. These were the politics of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which despite whatever errors did succeed in keeping the flame of global revolution alive at a time when Mao’s faction of the CPC had decided the USSR had opted for an unforgivable “peaceful co-existence” with US imperialism, deemed by them to be China’s greatest threat at the time.

Many of the results of the GPCR were tragic, as both the Chinese side and the USSR side made at least partially valid arguments. The USSR really did, in the period leading up to 1970, assume a relatively conservative foreign policy and thereby betray certain national liberation movements that could not wait, the Arab revolution among them. It cannot be forgotten, especially when studying and honoring the history of Arab revolutionary movements, that it was the GCPR that made the Marxism of the Palestinian Revolution possible. At the same time, Mao’s faction underestimated the importance of the USSR as a global counterweight to the US, containing its unilateral expansionism, both by way of diplomatic power and nuclear capabilities. When China began to treat the USSR as the primary contradiction, a left-opportunist error developed into an objective alliance with US imperialism. This error revealed itself in a number of locales, from Chile to Angola to, indeed, the Arab world. By the mid-1970s, official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maneuvers especially punctured the Marxist-Leninists of the ongoing revolution in Dhufar against Sultanic absolutism and British colonialism, as the PRC strengthened links with Oman for improved oil deals.

Beginning in 1963, as documented in John K. Cooley’s important article “China and the Palestinians,”  Zhou Enlai began making trips to Arab countries, carrying a promise: “We are ready to help the Arab nations to regain Palestine. Whenever you are ready, say the word. You will find us ready. We are willing to give you anything and everything; arms and volunteers.” A year later, in 1964, the CCP began delivering weapons to Fateh. Abu Iyad of Fateh described in his memoirs the two visits Yassir Arafat made to Peking in the years 1964 and 1966. Their visits were not simply limited to practical matters of logistics; the interests of the Palestinian delegation extended all the way to the process of socialist construction, the creation of a new society on the ruins of the old. Abu Iyad thus discussed how on one of their visits they had “asked to visit a commune”; their wish was granted as they descended upon the Chinese inland and ended up “convinced…of the positive role communes played in the country’s development.” Above all, Abu Iyad was “extremely impressed by the Chinese people’s dedication,” whom he deemed the real subjects and agents of the ongoing revolution. On the leadership of the Chinese revolution, he went so far as to remark to Yassir Arafat that “the Prophet Muhammad couldn’t have done better than Mao Zedong.” The Palestinian delegation saw signs of the Sino-Soviet split all over Peking, including “slogans and posters” denouncing Soviet “social-imperialism.”

Through delegations with the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), Palestinians could visit China with specific pleas and demands. For example, as also related by Cooley, in March 1964, two Palestinians with the AAPSO named Mohammed Khalil and Mohammed Rif’at attended a mass rally for Palestine at which the Chinese leadership blamed the United Nations and the Soviet Union for the loss of the Palestinian homeland and the mass exodus of refugees. The points of emphasis demonstrated as one example the central space that Palestine—as headquarters and fault line of Arab revolution in West Asia—occupied for the Chinese leadership in their tense dispute with Soviet authorities. In March 1965, Mao delivered an address to a visiting PLO delegation, led by then-chairman Ahmed Shuqairy, which put down the basis for Chinese support for the Palestinian cause. Mao determined that both the Chinese and the Palestinian peoples were together Asian peoples, despised by the West, and that “the Arab battle against the West is the battle against Israel.” Mao called on all Arab peoples to boycott the United States. He declared May 15—the date of the establishment of Israel, the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” for Palestinians who remember the occasion as one of ethnic cleansing—“Palestine Solidarity Day.” He further stated that when “when [Arabs] discuss Israel [they must] keep the map of the entire Arab world before [their] eyes,” implying that the Palestinian source of strategic strength is none other than the Arab masses. His words stood as confirmation of the continued utility of at least the pan-Arabist aspirations of MAN and kindred movements that had preceded the arrival of an explicitly Palestinian revolution.

In 1971, as chief Chinese delegate to the United Nations, Chiao Kuan-hua made in New York City a deep and searing critique of the very existence of the State of Israel that echoed the sentiments of the most radical wings of the Palestinian revolution. He declared bluntly that “the intrinsic nature of the Middle East question lies in the aggression against the Palestinian people and the other Arab peoples committed by Israeli Zionism, with the support and connivance of the superpowers.” Significantly, he took the position that no state, and certainly no superpower, had the right to procure a political settlement behind the backs of the Palestinians themselves. The position was especially notable for its staunch opposition to the position of the Soviet Union, which had come to accept UN Resolution 242, within which there lied an acknowledgement of Israel’s existence through proposed respect of its borders.

As George Habash himself said, his real commitment to Marxism developed after he discovered Mao (among others) in Syrian prison. The revolution that the GPCR help gift to the Arab homeland in that period was a beautiful thing. We need not look further for evidence than the pamphlets of the DPFLP, posted and waved throughout the refugee camps of Jordan in 1970: “Long Live the Masses of Jordan! Long Live the Workers and the Students and the Peasants and the Tradesmen and the Women and Men!” To say these calls were made from the camps is to say that they were made from the base of the Palestinian Revolution, in which the revolutionaries successfully established izdwaj al-sulta, their own version of “dual power.”

The Lasting Importance of “Marxism with Asian Characteristics”

My point in returning to the history of MAN is two-fold. First, this history shows the extent to which Marxism, in its most influential incarnations (“Marxism with Asian characteristics,” as Habash called it), was arrived at through anti-Zionist and Arab nationalist frameworks. Second, the Marxist parties into which MAN developed spearheaded revolutions that threatened the very foundations of global capital. In Palestine in particular, the PFLP and DPFLP played major roles in revolts that led to the establishment of revolutionary sovereignties, in Jordan in 1970 and in Lebanon in 1974. We might deem this phenomenon “destabilization,” but as far the international communist movement is concerned, the good kind of destabilization–our kind, inflicted on our terms. In light of those significant advances, we may well ask: How can we evaluate the historic utility of Arab nationalism to organizations like Fateh, the DPFLP, and of course the PFLP? For many of these organizations’ cadres, its ideological value became apparent on the ground, in the day-to-day struggles of mass work, the inglorious and grueling processes of speaking with workers and peasants and attempting to turn them towards the revolution.

Let us return to the example of Jordan in 1970—a site of revolution, then civil war, and eventually regime massacres. In the aftermath of those massacres, the DPFLP put out a summation document titled “September: Counter-Revolution in Jordan” that addressed a range of errors of the revolutionary movement. It also spoke to tactical successes, even if those successes were only partial. Weighing heavy in the minds of the revolutionaries were memories of Nasser and the Free Officers, in Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. In each of those experiences there lay the strength of an idea so powerful it could assist in the splitting of armies and the remaking of states. Their estimation was that in Jordan, “Royal reaction did its best—in every possible way—to isolate the army from nationalist and progressive ideological and political currents.” The pamphlet furthermore added, “Nationalist ideas are taboo, political affiliations are banned, and the nationalist elements inside the army are continually chased and purged.” To chase and purge the nationalist idea, the Jordanian King promoted the cult of the “Divine Right of Kings,” raised the slogan of “God, King and Country,” and other similar superstitions. As many revolutionaries saw it, there existed an ideological counter-weight: “…conscription will expose the army to nationalist currents, multiply nationalist cadres within its ranks and train the people in the use of arms.”

As during the French Revolution, nationalism in this context offered grounds for a ferocious rebuke to the superstitions of monarchy. When we survey the situation confronting Arab societies today, where revolutionary advances have been rolled back so dramatically as imperialism marches onward, we can see set against recolonization the potential power of the return of nationalism, particularly pan-nationalism, as a useful component of a ferocious rebuke to the endless schemes of the imperialists to divide the Arab masses, providing breathing space to those parties upholding the centrality of class analysis. And the threat of superstition has not gone away: the takfiris operating throughout Syria and Iraq employ Wahhabism, the creed of Saudi Arabia, described by Ali Kadri as bestowing “holy powers on commerce and the free market resurrected on the basis of a fabricated history of Islam.” As imperialist schemes proliferate, it becomes necessary for today’s revolutionaries—now in a defensive position—to hold on to an anchor, a defining slogan.

What relevance does this history hold for anti-imperialist and internationalist movements in the imperial core? The very question itself suggests that neither simple criticism nor simple glorification are sufficient. Rather, assuming we are genuinely interested in learning from the struggles with which we wish to link, we must decide what continues to be strategically useful from this history in order to build the necessary alliances for our present moment. For those revolutionaries who maintained their opposition to imperialism and Zionism after the Oslo so-called “Peace Process” from the platform of the Rejectionist Front, that anchor is the common defense of the Arab nation from imperialist machinations, in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, and Yemen. I will explore the enduring importance of this slogan at our present conjuncture in extended detail in Part II.

Victims of Propaganda: In Defense of the Palestinian Left

PFLP

Note: This post mostly deals with the arguments put forth by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In order to give the subject its due, scholarly work must be done on the historic debates within the broader Palestinian left.

Liberation struggles the world over are deeply indebted to the Palestinian Revolution—about this, there can be little doubt. At the historic height of this  revolution—dated roughly between the years 1967 and 1974—Palestine and the Palestinians were either entirely unacknowledged in the Western mainstream, or aggressively vilified. Times have changed, and Palestine now receives some rhetorical nuance in corridors of power and their attached “watchdogs,” the aid agencies and the human rights monitors and so on. On this still relatively recent development, it is helpful to bear two things in mind. First, the entrance of Palestine into the neoliberal field of “concern” (if there is any defining ideological contrivance of the so-called “neoliberal” phase of capital, it is humanitarianism) is the result of struggle, long-plotted and patiently fought. Second, the propaganda around Palestine permeating the West in the 1960s and 70s was borderline totalizing. Few counter-narratives slipped through the cracks. There was blackout, and to raise questions was grounds for a blacklisting.

Of course, in that era Palestine was unique among Arab nations in its proximity to the US-led imperial menace. This was a defining era not only for the Palestinian Revolution, but also for the ascent of American imperialism in the Middle East. The United States government had ingratiated itself among Arab states. Through this process, its monopolies effectively gained control of the region’s oil resources, but besides the scattered military bases and corporate insignia, the American presence lurked in the shadows and its control was cemented indirectly through puppet regimes. In Palestine, the confrontation with imperialism was more direct, taking the form of classic settler-colonialism, replete with actual invaders and full-on ethnic cleansing. The Palestine Liberation Organization recognized clearly this state of affairs, with the organization’s founding charter naming two enemies: Zionism, with which Palestinians came in direct confrontation, and imperialism. Palestine was not alone, the charter affirmed; rather, Palestine was the vanguard of the Arab liberation movement against imperialism.

It made sense that Palestine occupied the position of vanguard, given that the Palestinian homeland had been left decimated by a settler-inflicted catastrophe in 1948. Whereas large portions of the Palestinian people had been forced into refugee camps, and white pseudo-utopias had been constructed on the ruins of Palestinian villages, the Arab states continued to host societies. Undoubtedly these societies were super-exploited by monopolies, but they nonetheless stood as societies—until recently. Over the past fifteen or so years, the traditional sanctions against the Arab republics gave way to all out war as nakbas befell Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, each of which joined Palestine in deliberately sowed destitution. In viewing the media spectacles surrounding these demolitions, one gets a sense of what must have been the climate when the Palestinian Revolution was on the rise and countless truths were inverted. For the external obliterations of Palestine, Iraq, Libya, and Syria alike, the slogans “freedom” and “dignity” were similarly raised in the American press. Nonetheless, throughout each trying era, from the Palestinian Revolution to our current moment, some voices of resistance to both Zionism and imperialism have remained steadfast.

Smearing the Palestinian Left

Among those voices of resilience is that of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which served as the vanguard for the Palestinian Revolution and forced, for a time, the Palestine Liberation Organization—of which it was the second largest member, behind only Yasser Arafat’s Fateh—to adopt a social program breaching the limits of bourgeois nationalism. From the ranks of the PFLP, some of the old voices of the vanguard remain, voices such as Leila Khaled, reduced far too often in activist circles to a T-shirt a la Che Guevara. Khaled, like the organization from which she hails, also happens to offer an ever-evolving analysis of the Middle East, Palestine, and the world in general. When in 2013 she came out in defense of Syrian sovereignty and the Syrian institutions tasked with defending that sovereignty—institutions such as the Syrian Army—she was roundly ignored in the West or aggressively demonized, even by some leftists. On the subject of Syria, Khaled reportedly denounced the Syrian opposition:

“A panel discussion named ‘What is happening in Syria’ was organized by the Turkish Socialist Anew Foundation – Sosyalist Yeniden Kuruluş (SYK) in Istanbul to discuss the events in Syria and one of the participants was Laila Khaled from Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine. Laila Khaled insisted on that the events in Syria cannot be named as ‘revolution’ but, with all their respect to the Syrian people legitimate demands, the armed groups are fighting for a different agenda. Khaled, said that the Syria was under a joint attack of Gulf monarchies and Turkey, and their real aim is in accordance with US regional policy for to secure Israel state. The icon of the liberation movement of the Palestine said that their stand is not for supporting Bashar Al Assad but peoples of Syria who have been supporting the Palestinian in their struggle against the Zionists. She also directly attacks the Turkish foreign policy in the region by saying ‘Those who are hosting the US bases cannot stand with the struggle of Palestinians.’ After her speech many questions were asked and one of them is about Yarmouk Refugee camp. She said FSA with Al Qaeda and gangs attacked the camp, loot the houses of Palestininans [sic] and the offices of the Palestinian political groups. ‘The raids were forcing them to retreat from the camp, and when we demanded Syrian government to stop the raids, they did. But we also called FSA to retreat from the camp but they break their promises. And killed Palestinians who want to return their home’. “

Likewise, the position of the PFLP as an organization towards events in Syria earned them denunciations. Social justice blogs labeled Khaled an “Assadist.” The same sentiment was uttered on left-wing back channels. Some Western leftists went as far as to condemn Arab socialism in whole, with the PFLP apparently serving as exemplar, as “Stalinist,” these brutish Arabs having apparently consecrated their revolutionary movements in original sin, with no “anti-authoritarian” socialist history to call their own, unlike those gracious Europeans whose lessons these simple colonized folks failed to internalize. One of the most egregious instances came in 2011 from one Corey Oakley:

“One of the places the ideology of Stalinism has had the most debilitating impact is the Arab world. The underlying reason for this is that while in the West there was a pre-Stalinist socialist tradition – remnants of which survived Stalinisation in either the Trotskyist, syndicalist or social democratic currents – this was almost non-existent in the Arab world. This meant that Arab socialism was, virtually from the outset, Stalinist. Because of this all the class-collaborationist politics, bureaucratic organisational practices and opportunism that characterised Stalinism in the West were magnified.”

There you have it: these Arabs are even worse than the Western Stalinists they thoughtlessly imitate! This entire approach reeks of the condescension James Connolly noted about British socialists who claimed to support the Irish republican cause, but held consternation at the “sweet innocence” of the movement’s naïve “mistakes” in regards to entities about which the imperial leftist requires swift and uncompromising condemnations. In that case, the imperial leftist litmus test was German imperialism. The British leftist, who concretely benefits from the oppression of the Irish people, conceives of his required form of opposition to Germany as a simple matter of principle and morality having nothing to do with his own relative position. Connolly replied scathingly: “Perhaps after he has been here as many years as he has been days he will begin to understand that the instinct of the slave to take sides with whoever is the enemy of his own particular slave-driver is a healthy instinct, and makes for freedom.” Connolly did not wish to argue that Germany was not an empire; but he refused to develop his political program at the command of his oppressor.

This mode of critique is hardly comradely, and rather carries the tone and mannerisms of a parent lecturing a child, all while reducing successes (if it is even magnanimous to recognize any) and failures to a matter of subjective political line, with little to no attention paid to the conditions in which the movement developed. It is actually quite fitting for the author to praise the “democratic socialism” of the West while assuming a morally superior posture, for our beloved “democratic socialism” tends to bomb their villages. If one has the privilege to avoid the hard choices made by those living under far more desperate circumstances—the privilege of the intellectual, let us say, for whom the world and its history appears to unfold below his or her feet—it is easy for one’s principles to appear superior.

Others chided the PFLP for supposed degeneration. The lack of genuine pollination between left-wing movements that gives rise to such an impression leads to an uncomfortable sense that many of those in the West who did raise Khaled’s visage over the years never intended to take her content seriously. The same could very well be uttered about the Palestinian Revolution as a whole, given the PFLP’s prominent placement within that tradition. The primary reason for such a suspicion is that, as any cursory glance of the PFLP’s past political output demonstrates, their current views of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East are not the product of drastic whims in subjective political line since their foundation in 1967. Rather, these revolutionaries’ guiding principles for theory and practice remain largely intact. What must have changed then are the objective political conditions of the region. The major difference in the Middle East since the era of the Palestinian Revolution is the comparative success of the US-Israeli-Saudi counterrevolution.

A Radical Critique of Arab Conditions

It should go without saying that particular conditions require particular measures. The first issue with the refusal to engage the PFLP is a refusal to recognize the nature of those conditions. The second issue is historical amnesia. It helps then to recount the basic timeline of events between the years 1967 and 1974, and the attitude of the PFLP towards revolution and the wider Arab world.

In order to understand developments in the Middle East between 1967 and 1974, it is necessary to explore the PFLP’s initial program. To explore this program is to answer the question, Why should we care what the PFLP—a Palestinian organization—has to say about Syria? The answer is simple: the PFLP early on distinguished themselves among revolutionary Palestinian organizations, particularly from Fateh, by declaring the business of Arab governments and societies the business of their revolution. In so doing, they developed the original left-wing critique of the Arab bourgeois nationalism that would capture state power in the Arab republics—that is, in Libya, Iraq, and Syria:

“The Arab bourgeoisie has developed armies which are not prepared to sacrifice their own interests or to risk their privileges. Arab militarism has become an apparatus for oppressing revolutionary socialist movements within the Arab states, while at the same time it claims to be staunchly anti-imperialist. Under the guise of the national question, the bourgeoisie has used its armies to strengthen its bureaucratic power over the masses and to prevent the workers and peasants from acquiring political power. So far it has demanded the help of the workers and peasants without organising them or without developing a proletarian ideology. The national bourgeoisie usually comes to power through military coups and without any activity on the part of the masses, as soon as it has captured power it reinforces its bureaucratic position. Through widespread application of terror it is able to talk about revolution while at the same time it suppresses all the revolutionary movements and arrests everyone who tries to advocate revolutionary action. The Arab bourgeoisie has used the question of Palestine to divert the Arab masses from realising their own interests and their own domestic problems. The bourgeoisie always concentrated hopes on a victory outside the state’s boundaries, in Palestine, and in this way they were able to preserve their class interests and their bureaucratic positions.”

Again, the PFLP’s is a critique that has been scarcely improved since its first articulation, and so it should be humbling to any outside observers who figure they have all the answers about the political degeneration of Syria over the past twenty years.  Much has been written in the Western press about the human rights violations carried out under Ba’athist states and their mukhabarat—there is that humanitarianism again—and staked any critique of Ba’athism on repression. What is missing, because we are dealing with the bourgeois press here, is the class content of the state that gives rise to particular forms of repression. It is rather banal to call a state authoritarian since every state must exercise authority or dissipate. What is interesting, what is important, is the class for which authority is exercised. In each case of Arab republicanism, military officers committed coup d’etats against hand-picked monarchs who slowed development on behalf of colonial masters. Make no mistake, these were radical republican coups, but in the original bourgeois, and not necessarily proletarian, sense. Thus, these leaders would deliver the goods and the rights of the bourgeois republican tradition, and they would deliver the horrors of the same tradition, which is to say the goods and the horrors of the nation-state itself.

This arrangement struck the nascent Palestinian revolutionary movement as an insufficient compromise. These states might be able to deliver to workers and women, but they could not exist under the command of workers and women. In order for such an arrangement, under the complete sway of the proletariat and the peasantry, to come into existence, there would have to be a qualitative break. In other words, the states built by bourgeois colonials would have to be smashed. Short of such a moment, there could be no engine through which workers could take power. The hardline nationalist military officers who took control of these states upon slaying servant-kings could make greater gestures towards anti-imperialism because they had to defy imperialism to exist in the first place. In establishing republics, they rightfully claimed the bourgeois rule that bourgeois rulers had heretofore denied them. But they could not commit unwaveringly to anti-imperialism because anti-imperialism is only truly in the class interests of the proletariat, the ultimate victims of capitalism. As a result of its vacillating nature, the Arab national bourgeois did, as many cynical imperialist commentators have pointed out, crush Arab revolutionaries, in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

And yet why do these imperialist commentators appear to care about Palestinian revolutionaries more than the Palestinian revolutionaries themselves? After all, the PFLP opposes the machinations against the Syrian government. So too does the PFLP’s comrades in Hezbollah, in a much more direct way, and their protestors have been shot at in the past by Syrian government troops. It would appear then that neither of these organizations require lectures of the nature of the Syrian government, and should even understand it much better than any American. The question could apply even to the founder of the PFLP, George Habash. In 1967, the most radical Syrian government in history, under the leadership of the Marxist-influenced military officer Salah Jadid, arrested and jailed the young Habash. Far from being a grudge-feeder for Habash, this experience enlightened him, as in 1998 he relayed that this event, along with the Six-Day War of 1967, pushed him personally away from the narrow nationalism of the Arab National Movement (the organizational precursor to the PFLP) and towards socialism:

“…my real commitment to Marxism came after the 1967 war. My Marxism grew deeper during my imprisonment in Syria. I am indebted to my jailer, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Jundi, who kept me in solitary confinement for nine or ten months, thinking he would break me. I spent that entire period reading all the collected works of Marx and Engels, of Lenin, also of Ho Chi Minh and Mao. It was after that I wrote the declaration of the [Popular] Front’s second national convention.”

In undertaking the decision to incorporate socialism into its program for national liberation, the PFLP began—somewhat in parallel with the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) and other organizations—to break new social ground in Arab society. While maintaining that their “main field of struggle” was still Palestine, the PFLP sought to challenge the conservative notions of Fateh that this “main field” must constitute the only field of struggle. By 1969, the year the PFLP put down its platform, the organization had come to a conclusion that the phenomena of Zionism, imperialism, and “Arab reaction” were inextricably linked. The links were made explicit by a “chain of plots”; the PFLP called out the Jordanian monarchy specifically. To quote this platform once more:

“The struggle in east Jordan must take the correct path, that of class struggle. The Palestinian struggle must not be used as a means of propping up the Jordanian monarchy. Under the mask of national unity, and the main problem in Jordan is the creation of a Marxist-Leninist party with a clear action programme according to which it can organise the masses and enable them to carry out the national and class struggle. The harmony of the struggle in the two regions, must be realised through coordinating organs whose tasks will be to guarantee reserves inside Palestine and to mobilise the peasants and soldiers in the border-territories.”

By the next year, the Palestinian fadayeen, of which the PFLP constituted a crucial part, were undertaking in Jordan the decision to overthrow the monarchy. It is important to review the events that led up to such a point.

The (Counter)Revolutionary Past

For a period of time in the 1960s, the Arab governments were broadly aligned, at least superficially in favor of the Palestinian guerrilla movement. Although it could be said that funding from the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, had a “moderating” effect on the Fateh wing of the PLO, even these states and the Jordanian monarchy were lending the movement some form of support—the peak of Jordanian support came in 1968, during the Battle of Karameh, a touchstone moment in the development of Palestinian nationalism.

However, as noted by Fuad Jabber, this support “had not been unconditional,” as even the Arab republics of Syria and Iraq had to “weigh the effects of their policies and the fadayeen presence in their countries on the stability of their regimes.” Relations were even tougher with the governments in Lebanon and Jordan, for “although the resistance movement sought sanctuary and territorial control on the Jordanian East Bank—which it largely obtained during 1968-1969—its actual secure base had been in Syria, where its stronghold has taken a political rather than territorial form.” Furthermore, “the commando leadership knew from past experience that a powerful and independent fadayeen would not be tolerated in the long run by the Jordanian and Lebanese regimes for varied reasons.” In the Jordanian case, the monarchy expressed clear concern that fadayeen attacks on Israel would bring about Israeli reprisals on Jordanian territory that would in turn create domestic dissatisfaction.

The fadayeen understood that this worry presaged a possible Jordanian policy of liquidation and extermination against them. At the same time, they understood that Syria, whatever its objections to their movement, was grounded in the Arab nationalist underside to the colonial nation-state infrastructure in the Middle East and thus maintained an interest in attacking the monarchies. The approach of the fadayeen, and of figures like Habash, had to take this contradiction into account, for organizations such as the PFLP, who found themselves appropriating the Maoist notion of “People’s War,” were not in a position to take advantage of a neglected countryside within contiguous territory. Rather, the Palestinian proletariat and peasantry, the subjects of the revolution, found themselves launching war from within refugee camps, scattered across several hostile nation-states with borders between them.

Shireen

To meet this challenge, Habash let go of any unnecessary animosity towards the Syrian government for its treatment against him (a sacrifice for the revolution, really) and made a calculation: within the “Arab world,” the republics posed a secondary rather than primary contradiction. His calculation was that if the Palestinian fadayeen established themselves in Jordan rather than Syria, they could count on support from the Syrian government to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. Conversely, if the Palestinian fadayeen attempted to overthrow the Syrian government instead or simultaneously, as ultra-left moralism would have it, they would find themselves isolated and therefore suicidal. Habash’s calculation ultimately proved correct, as Syria turned out to be the only Arab government to lend support to the fadayeen when they actually did attempt to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy during the events of Black September in 1970. As the situation for the Arab left grew worse after the failure of Black September, Habash escalated this position. Although conditions had grown worse, Habash refused defeatism and felt compelled to make use of what the movement had left. In 1998, after he had taken up refuge in Damascus, he made the following remarks:

“In the final days of the Lebanese War, Abu ‘Ammar had come to see me at the PFLP office at the headquarters of al-Hadaf, our official organ. He asked to speak to me in private. He asked me: ‘What do you say to us leaving together?’ I asked: ‘Where to?’ He said ‘Tunis or Cyprus.’ I understood what he was thinking. I told him: ‘If you think the revolution is over, I don’t share your opinion. The revolution must go on, even under very difficult circumstances. We must stay, and safeguard national unity and our ties with the only power capable of supporting us now: Syria…”

In reading any possible contradiction with Syria to be secondary under these difficult circumstances, the PFLP was remaining true to its understanding of the primary contradiction with imperialism, a view to which they held consistently true down the years. Quite simply, any advancement of imperialism was an advancement against the Arab nation as a whole; and any advancement against the Arab nation as a whole was an advancement against the Palestinian nation in particular. The PFLP position on the American attacks on Iraq in 1991, forwarded by politburo member Jamil Majdalawi, serves as one example of this consistent anti-imperialism:

‘The Gulf War had two phases. The first phase was the arrival of the U.S. troops in the Gulf. During this very short phase, the PFLP was opposed to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. We felt that Arab unity should not be achieved through force that the Iraqi troops should withdraw from Kuwait. Then there should be an Arab solution to the problem. With this in mind, George Habash visited various Arab states and sought an Arab initiative to solve this crisis. Two principles were central to this initiative: The withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and the right to self-determination for the Kuwaiti people. The second phase of the Gulf War was the advance of U.S. and other Western troops into the Gulf region. During this phase, the PFLP placed a priority on the struggle against the imperialist troops. We felt there could not be a solution which sought to strengthen the imperialist domination over the region.”

When pressed as to whether the PFLP “opportunistically” supported Iraq, as they are often accused of doing now in relation to Syria, Majdalawi offered more background information:

“The relationship between the PFLP and any Arab state is based on the idea that Palestinians and Arabs have common interests. During the Iran-Iraq War, the PFLP’s position was against Iraq. This led the Iraqi government to close all PFLP offices in the country and to expel PFLP members. From 1980 to 1989, there were no contacts at all between the PFLP and Iraq. The presence of the PFLP in Iraq was clandestine. In the 1990s, the PFLP did not receive any benefits from a relationship with Iraq. Iraq is in no position to support other forces. Rather Iraq itself needs support against the imperialist powers.”

Two things stand out about Majdalawi’s remarks here. First, that when he invokes “Iraq,” or when now PFLP statements invoke “Syria,” they are thinking about places, people, countries, and societies, not “regimes” and certainly not individuals. Second, it is clear that the threat of imperialist domination must always be guarded against vigilantly, and that one component of vigilantly guarding against further imperialist domination of the Middle East is not to use past transgressions of a given government as justification for in the present throwing it, and thus the people of the region, to the imperialist wolves.

The Temporary Victory of the Counterrevolution

It is impossible to understand the conditions that led to these decisions without understanding the consolidation of the US-Israeli-Saudi counterrevolution in 1970 and 1971. In hindsight, the decision of the fadayeen to attempt revolution in Jordan might appear brash and irresponsible, but it did not occur without provocation, namely the 1970 Rogers Plan forwarded by the United States. More specifically, the Rogers Plan was, to quote Jaber again, “a presentation by the United States of a new set of proposals for the peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict in June 1970” that would conscript Jordan and, more troublingly, the Arab nationalist government in Egypt into normalizing both Israel and its chief backer, the United States, in the Middle East. In other words, with more incentive to appease the United States, the vacillating national bourgeois state in Egypt would wind up less likely to appease socialist popular sentiment in the region and, by extension, the Palestinian revolutionaries.

It was exactly this discovery about Egypt, signs of which had appeared in advance of 1970, that pushed anti-colonial Arab movements towards a “qualitative break” and towards Marxism-Leninism, as chronicled by Abdel Razzaq Takriti in Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976:

“…it had become increasingly clear that the movement was being treated by Egypt as a tool of its intelligence apparatus as opposed to an arm of coordinated political action…

The failure of the ‘merger with Nasserism’ policy encourages the transformation of the [Arab National Movement]. Marxism-Leninism in all its non-Soviet varieties became increasingly popular within the movement. Vietnam, Cuba and China were all sources of inspiration, torch-bearing tricontinental nations that seemed to be charting an independent revolutionary path towards social and national liberation…

In July 1967, George Habash convened a meeting of MAN’s national executive committee that resulted in a report entitled ‘The Arab Revolution in the face of the Battle of Destiny’. It was argued that June’s main stoppage lay in the termination of the war with the military defeat, and the failure to transform it from a conventional conflict into a total war of popular national liberation against all colonialist forces in the Arab world. The Vietnamese experience was cited: what was lacking on the Arab level was a long-term mobilization that could lead to the creation of ‘many Vietnams’ (the phrase was probably borrowed from Che Guevara, who had coined it in February 1967). This was effectively a call for people’s war, something that was defined by General Giap in the following terms: ‘to educate, mobilise, organise and arm the whole people in order that they might take part in the resistance’.” 

In this moment, the limits of bourgeois nationalism to the communist cause became apparent; the revolutionaries had do something, and so they struck at the heart of Arab reaction with insufficient forces and weaponry. They struck, and they were crushed.

Comrade Omar Nayef Zayed, political prisoner and struggler for Palestinian freedom, assassinated by the enemy in Bulgaria on February 26, 2016.

Black September, the long-belated confrontation between Arab reaction and the Palestinian Revolution in the streets of Amman, made violently apparent the links the PFLP had analytically drawn between reaction and imperialism. King Hussein in Jordan recognized fearfully the threat of the revolution and ran to Israel and the United States for protection. The contemporary regional role of the United States in the Middle East, as we know it, had been consolidated, along with one more major development, this one concerning Saudi Arabia.

It is well-known that the United States had been eyeing Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves since at least 1945, when a leaked State Department document declared these resources “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” By 1971, the over-leveraged British Empire was no longer the chief imperial power in the region, allowing the United States to assume this very position through the so-called “Nixon Doctrine.” Among the key components of the doctrine were the abandonment of the Breton-Woods system and gold as reserve currency as well as the simultaneous embrace of the fiat system and the US dollar. The United States had evolved from the industrial stage of capital-development it had reached through the American Civil War into an era of acutely advanced finance capital, and it would have been unable to do so without Saudi Arabia. US oil monopolies—Exxon, Texaco, Socal, and Mobile—took control of Aramco and Saudi oilfields. US banks—Citibank and Chase Manhattan, for example—established “off-shore banking units” in the Saudi satellite island Bahrain, where they took advantage of numerous shadow laws to receive enormous tax breaks, especially when dollars began to flow from sky-high oil prices in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 October War.

Of course, each of these developments carried grave implications for the Palestinian Revolution. When Henry Kissinger approached the Saudi royal family with the petrodollar arrangement that made the US financial empire possible—the marking of oil prices in dollars allowing the US cheaper oil importation than the rest of the world and endless cash supplies in the form of global reserve currency—he appealed to Saudi fears of revolutionary sentiments propagated by the likes of the PFLP and the PFLO. (This is a good opportunity to point out the both Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qadhafi had replaced the dollar as the reserve currency before they were taken out.) It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the consolidation of US imperialism in the Middle East and the suppression of the Arab left happened as component aspects of a single whole; historically, the success of the former came out the defeat of the latter. Consequently, all of those who would blame the Arab left for recent events in the Middle East—those sitting critics who would and do reserve special heaps of scorn for the old guard revolutionaries still fighting for an embattled dream—are victim-blaming in the most unforgivable fashion.

Long Live the Palestinian Revolution!

The relative decline of the Palestinian left, after the high period of raw repression, occurred in stages and layers. Some of the decline came as part of the decline of the Palestinian national movement as a whole, from betrayals the PFLP had predicted long ago. The upper stratum of Fateh leadership sought to safeguard their financial holdings in diaspora investments; Seif Dana invokes the particularly revealing case of the Contracting and Trading Industry (CAT). Their politics followed their money, and their capitulation reached an apotheosis in the Oslo agreements, through which Israel outsourced its security work. Some of the decline came out of the alternative program offered by the so-called “Islamists” (a dubious but popular term) such as Hamas, which might have been seen as a welcome change of pace at a time when the national movement appeared to have surrendered. Israel even lent tacit support to progenitors of Hamas, predicting correctly that it would target the Palestinian left before it would target Israel. George Habash took the change in stride, reportedly saying in his years of Damascene twilight that his movement had given liberation a try, and now it had become time to let the religious groups see what they can do.

The PFLP has been self-critical, for instance saying that they had not been enough willing to define socialism for themselves rather than trying loyally to replicate the Soviet model. Another self-criticism is that they did not assign armed struggle a proper role as a supplement to popular struggle. To be certain, criticism is best left to the participants themselves. What is concerning is that a Western left that thinks it is above or beyond solidarity with the PFLP. Perhaps the leap is made from the idea that the organization is not what it once was, to the idea that it ceases to exist. What should be apparent is that it is astonishing to see this organization standing, after facing COINTELPRO-like machinations. And we must remember that the internal questions of Palestinian society and liberation remain to be worked out.

Not even Hamas, ostensibly a “religious” organization, has been able to purge from its program national commitments. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority, that irksome puzzle of neocolonial control, responsible for the collaborations that led to the arrest of Comrade Ahmed Saadat and the assassination of Comrade Omar Nayef Zayad, shows signs of internal cleavage. Only recently a Palestinian Authority staff sergeant “was shot dead when he allegedly opened fire on and wounded three Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint,” a moment Ha’aretz called “the nightmare scenario that has worried Israel for months.” It would be naïve to write the ground troops of the PA off as a potential revolutionary force at a future time. To be sure, the problem they pose for Palestinians is that Israel and America have given them all the weapons. At the same time, the threat they pose for Israel is precisely that they have been given all the weapons. If a dialectic emerges, and the PA’s unsustainable economic model does not deliver to its base enough comfort to overcome the psychological torment of the occupation, there exists in the PFLP a still-standing revolutionary program ready to be consulted anew, with its many political prisoners, including its leader Saadat, serving as models.

Even more recently, Mahmoud Abbas and the PA leadership ordered the freezing of PFLP funds–a provocative gesture undoubtedly taken at the behest of Israel, which fears the PFLP for the strength of its analysis and the scope of its ties, extending through Syria and to Iran. PFLP supporters responded in Gaza by torching images of Abbas. These are messages not-so-subtly exchanged between compradors and revolutionaries, both sides understanding their class loyalties full well.

Palestinian feminist and Palestinian Legislative Council member Khalida Jarrar, arrested and held in administrative detention by Israeli occupation forces on April 2, 2015.

Victims of Propaganda

The great Marxist historian Gerald Horne does something unusual before beginning his lectures. He literally drops to his knees and begins apologizing. He apologizes to Black people, indigenous people, Mexican people—all of those peoples who are “victims of propaganda” as “progressive” and “radical” scholars fail to do their jobs and decline to produce true counter-histories. The PFLP, and Palestinian revolutionaries in general (and Hezbollah for that matter), are such victims, or at the very least such targets. The historiography of the Palestinian left has been written in the West by the open servants of the so-called “security state”; the bourgeois press goes so far as to label the PFLP the precursors in their activities to the nihilistic violence of al Qaeda. We have not seen in English anything close to the history the Palestinian Revolution deserves. Until that history arrives, raising these comrades’ arguments will provide one with few plaudits and not a few accusations of moral barbarism. These Palestinian Marxist-Leninists are those radicals who refused imperialism’s platforms, who did not beg Barack Obama for military favors in front of the White House so that The Washington Post and the think-tank orbit could turn them cuddly. The enemy has, in the words of Mao, painted them as “utterly black and without a single virtue.” To defend their honor is exactly the kind of job a radical must embrace.

Read in full the PFLP’s 1969 document, “Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine,” still the best analysis offered on the relationship between Zionism and imperialism, and Palestinian liberation: http://pflp.ps/english/2012/12/13/strategy-for-the-liberation-of-palestine-february-1969-historical-document-now-available-electronically/

War Within a War

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Over the past week, the news media have made noise about the unlikely but certainly not unwelcome prospect of an end to the Syrian war. If the general attack on the Syrian state does end, however, it will not likely bring an end to every arena of conflict in Syria. Among those arenas is that of the much-discussed Kurdish liberation movement. Less commonly discussed are Syrian liberation efforts against Israel waged in occupied Golan Heights. In this arena, the substance of colonialism and resistance are being shaped for the future. It is an arena worthy of serious attention, as it informs other aspects of the war, the region, and the information in circulation.

For starters, those Syrian liberation efforts in the Golan account for much of the context of recent propaganda targeting Hezbollah in the Western press. For unbeknownst to far too many Western observers, including those on the left holding a professed interest in the movement against Israeli settler-colonialism, Hezbollah has continued to focus on building a popular movement against Israel even in Syria, where its presence has been controversial.

In order to get a sharper sense of this context—of both Hezbollah’s continued anti-Zionist mobilization and the media crusades against it—it is helpful to begin with Israel’s latest high-profile assassination carried out in Syria.

Israel’s assassination of stalwart Arab resistance figure Samir Kuntar, carried out on December 19th, 2015 in Jaramana of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, was part of a larger Israeli effort to annex the Golan territories once and for all. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Israel has viewed the consequent destabilization of the country as the perfect opportunity to fulfill these long-held plans. Annexation has been prepared among Israeli state policy-makers, real estate developers, and segments of the Israeli population.

As recently as October of last year, The New York Times reported that “there is a building boom quietly underway” in occupied Golan. The report further noted that there has been established in Israel an “aggressive development goal” for the territories. In charge of these efforts is Israeli minister Naftalie Bennett, who made the promise to “introduce a plan…involving ‘several hundreds of millions of shekels’ to create jobs, housing, schools and transportation in the sprawling, green Golan Heights.” Bennett declared the war itself a “rare opportunity”—one that would in its initial stages be realized through “10,000 new residents…in five years.”

Running counter to the Israeli operation, the Syrian Arab Army and allied Lebanese Hezbollah have been building a national Arab resistance network—of which Kuntar was a crucial part—in these very territories. If Israel’s aim is to remove Arabs from Golan Heights, a principal aim of the SAA and Hezbollah throughout the war has been to remove Israel from Syria for good and for final.

What exactly was Israel trying to accomplish by assassinating Kuntar? Here it is helpful to look into the background of Kuntar himself. The assignment of Kuntar, working with Hezbollah, to an emerging anti-Zionist front in the Golan Heights marked an effective attempt to resurrect and rekindle the ideals for which Kuntar stood for almost his entire life, namely pan-Arab solidarity. It is the nascent movement in Syria embedded in those ideals—at least to the extent they emphasize unity between sects at a time when imperialism is promoting and fomenting divisions between them—that Israel and allied states, ranging from its backer the United States to the Arab Gulf states, hope to destroy.

The Making of a Martyr

Kuntar_Nasrallah

Samir Kuntar was born to a Druze Lebanese family in the village of Abiya in Mount Lebanon. Although the son of a relatively affluent family—his mother a homemaker and his father a chef stationed in Saudi Arabia—the privation he witnessed in the Palestinian refugee camps inspired indignation inside him from a young age onward. In Kuntar’s own words, as part of an interview conducted with Chen Kotes-Bar for The Guardian:

“…My family is Druze, secular and well off. We are three brothers and five sisters. We have a beautiful house that overlooks Beirut, with a view of the airport from the balcony. Occasionally my father took me to Beirut. When I saw the refugee camps, I asked my father what they were. He explained to me, ‘Son, those are Palestinians. The Israelis drove them out of their country, and they’re not allowed to return.”

At age 13, Kuntar joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); members of the organization picked Kuntar up by car on a daily basis for guerrilla training sessions. In short time, Kuntar was running sophisticated resistance operations against Israel. His first major task ended in arrest at the hands of Jordanian mukhabarat, as he and his comrades had been captured while attempting to cross into Israel via the Jordan River. After 11 months in Jordanian prison, Kuntar was released in 1978. Roughly one year later, he embarked with the Palestine Liberation Army upon the mission that would gain him notoriety in both Israel and the Arab world, carrying a reputation for horror in the former and for heroism in the latter.

The operation, named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, ended tragically in the death of a four-year-old girl, Einat Haran. According to Kuntar, the intent of the mission was to enter Israel by sea and swiftly take hostage three or four adults for the purposes of an exchange and the release of Arab political prisoners held by Israel. Kuntar further discussed the details of the ill-fated mission with Kotes-Bar:

“I tried to calm him with gestures. I said to him, ‘Come.’ He started speaking to me in a mixture of Hebrew and English. He held his daughter tightly. The girl did not make a sound. She was wearing pyjamas. I tried to tell him to leave her there, but he did not understand. I tried telling him ‘come.’ But he did not want to come with me. I understood he was trying to give the police time to arrive. He was afraid.

“My comrade, Muhammad Ali, did not understand why we were waiting. I tried explaining to Haran again, using Arabic and hand gestures. He understood, but he was completely unwilling to come with me. I tried to separate him from the little girl. Then I heard shots outside. It was 2.45am. I said, ‘He is delaying us.’

“I grabbed him in a hurry, with the girl in his arms. I said, ‘Yalla, imshi [‘Let’s go, move it’]. We left the building surrounding Haran, who was holding his daughter in his arms, and went to the beach. Haran kept halting and talking, trying to delay us. But we had to get to the boat. They were waiting for us in Lebanon.

“As we approached the rubber dinghy, we heard a lot of voices. Then shots were fired in our direction. We approached the boat from the rocks, and Ali took Danny on board. That’s when they started to shoot at us really hard. I returned fire, but it wasn’t enough. Ali and Danny got off the boat. I ordered everyone to take a position on the rocks and return fire. Danny was behind us. His daughter was near him. Haran waved at the soldiers and called out to them in Hebrew.

“They continued to fire heavily. I ducked down to put a fresh magazine into my rifle. Haran waved again, while they were still firing, and he was wounded.

“The little girl screamed. That was the first time we heard her. That’s it. I don’t remember anything else.

“The battle continued until around 5.30am. Ahmed was wounded in the forehead. Ali was killed. I took five bullets and lost a lot of blood. I was not focused.

“What happened to the girl? During the interrogation they told me, ‘You must admit that you wounded the girl with your rifle.’ I told them, ‘Write whatever you want.’ I did not see anything and I did not hear anything. It was total chaos there. I was focused on the goal. I don’t mind admitting to things that I did. I don’t want to admit to things that I did not do.”

Through the trial and the subsequent sentencing, Kuntar became the target of an obvious frame-up, with the prosecution claiming that he smashed the young girl’s head with the butt of his rifle. In response to this claim, Zvi Sela, who spent time with Kuntar while serving as Chief Intelligence Officer of the Israel Prison service, upheld firmly his belief in the accuracy of Kuntar’s story, telling Ha’aretz,

“We turned Kuntar into God-knows-what – the murderer of Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat. The man who smashed in the girl’s head. That’s nonsense. A story. A fairy tale. He told me he didn’t do it and I believe him. I investigated the event… and in my opinion there is support for the fact that they were killed by fire from the Israeli rescue forces. You can accuse him all you like, but it was obviously the rescue forces that opened fire.”

While serving in Israeli prison, Kuntar solidified a reputation among the Arab masses as a symbol of vigilant resistance to Zionism. He enrolled in a program to take online course with the Open University of Israel, learning Hebrew and graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Social and Political Science after completing (in Hebrew) a thesis titled “The Contradiction of Democracy and Security in Israel.”

When Kuntar was finally released from Israeli prison in 2008, it was on account of Operation Truthful Promise, the cross-border raid carried out in 2006, during which several Hezbollah soldiers captured two IDF solders. Hezbollah’s original name for the operation was “Freedom for Samir Kuntar and His Brothers.” On July 16, 2008, Hezbollah returned the bodies of the captured IDF soldiers in exchange for Kuntar and four Hezbollah prisoners. Upon release, Kuntar was the subject of an elaborate welcome-home ceremony in Lebanon attended by Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. He also visited Iran, where he paid respects to the infamous Hezbollah mujahid Imad Mughniyeh, and Syria, where he received from President Bashar al-Assad the Order of Merit (the highest possible Syrian honor) for his anti-Zionist commitment. The Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, memorialized Kuntar.

Flash forward to 2012, as disaster loomed over Syria as the result of a large-scale and sophisticated proxy war launched by a coalition of NATO-aligned states and Israel assumed its role in the war on the Golan Front, along the border with the southeastern tip of Syria. This development provided Kuntar, working under the provision of the Hezbollah commanders who negotiated for his freedom in 2008, with justification to enter Syria. In late 2012, Kuntar took up a position of command within the nascent Syrian National Defence forces, formed with the coordination of and support from the Syrian Army. His mission was to cultivate a national and popular Syrian resistance to Israeli presence in occupied Golan by training and equipping local Syrians.

On July 1st, 2015, Kuntar appeared on the pan-Arab television station al-Mayadeen and spoke publicly about the current state of affairs in occupied Golan. He and his co-panelists challenged the notion that the anti-Zionist campaign coalescing in occupied Golan was specifically Shi’i on account of Hezbollah involvement, or specific to any sect for that matter—the campaign was, Kuntar noted, a Syrian one. As such, a rebuke to the sectarian logic the war in Syria has seemed to take, in accordance with the classic imperialist strategy of divide-and-conquer.

The Return of Pan-Arab Resistance

This series of events should speak well enough to the political tradition to which Kuntar belongs and to the movement he wanted to build. Although less overtly communistic in his politics than some of his comrades, Kuntar nonetheless places firmly in the history of secular pan-Arabism defined significantly by anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, the principles through which his bond with Hezbollah was forged. While Israel becomes concerned over the material networks formed on a military basis, it undoubtedly fears the popular component most, along with any possibility that pan-Arab ideology lead back to socialism. After all, Israel and its allies have spent many years trying to undermine any movements that could potentially pose a challenge to imperialist control of regional resources, (especially those in the past that have declared resources the property of the people). The status of support for this resistance from the Ba’ath Party in Syria, which historically represents a vacillating bourgeois tendency tendency in Arab nationalism, will be largely contingent on Syria’s geopolitical position. But Kuntar noted in his interview with al-Mayadeen that the resistance in Golan has been set and could not be reversed even if Israel assassinated him.

With principles of pan-Arab solidarity, foundational for regional unity against imperialist predation, the Druze Kuntar’s relationship with the Shi’i Hezbollah may be seen as organic, in defiance of the fear-mongering propaganda campaign Israel has been promulgating towards Golani residents that the resistance campaign is a cover for the forced establishment of Shi’i hegemony.

In light of heavy sectarian incitement since 2011, Nasrallah’s own rhetorical output has relied increasingly on the theme of unity between the sects. To carry out this message, Nasrallah has often relied on pan-Arabist history, themes, and tropes. When condemning Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen, for example, Nasrallah shamed the Saudi leadership as Arabs, pointing out their hypocrisy for naming a military operation against Yemen a “storm,” but never having taken anything close to such action on behalf of Palestine. Thus, pan-Arab solidarity has constituted the ideological grounds on which the Syrian National Defense Forces have been cultivated. And so it was this kind of impulse that Israel was seeking to stymie with the assassination of Kuntar, an operation that mirrored the assassination-by-drone-strike carried out by Israel in occupied Golan against Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of the famed Imad) and other Hezbollah operatives in January of 2015.

Members of Lebanon's militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah carry the coffin of Lebanese militant Samir Kantar, who was killed in a suspected Israeli air-raid on his home in the Jaramana district on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 21, 2015. Israel's justice minister welcomed the death of Kantar but did not claim credit for the air strike in Syria that killed him, which Hezbollah said was an Israeli raid. AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO / AFP / ANWAR AMRO

Members of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah carry the coffin of Lebanese militant Samir Kantar, who was killed in a suspected Israeli air-raid on his home in the Jaramana district on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 21, 2015. Israel’s justice minister welcomed the death of Kantar but did not claim credit for the air strike in Syria that killed him, which Hezbollah said was an Israeli raid. AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO / AFP / ANWAR AMRO

These assassinations are one side of a “carrot-and-stick” policy, a revolving door of intimidation and enticement, pursued by Israel in occupied Golan, as stated in an important survey of Israel’s history in Golan published in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Akhbar (which has been offering important reportage and commentary unavailable to the majority of English-speaking audiences). The report states that Israel has on the one hand been assassinating and arresting resistance leaders in the area, and on the other hand offering a series of appeasements in order to co-opt ordinary Syrians living there. But Israel has faced a problem: with each assassination of a resistance leader, popular sentiment only swings further and more forcefully towards the option of confrontation with Israel.

The current Israeli policy in occupied Golan was codified in 1981, when a bill called the “Golan Decision” was passed in the Knesset declaring Golan Heights part of “historic Israel.” From the Madrid “peace” talks in 1991, all the way through the 2000 Camp David accords and the 2007 negotiations in Turkey, Golan became a supposed obstacle to “peace” between Israel and Syria. A frequent reference point in official diplomatic peace attempts between Israel and Syria has been the “land-for-peace” formula. Invariably, the negotiation attempts failed, and Syria continues to refuse the legitimacy of Israel as a matter of official policy.

This refusal explains in part Israel’s actions throughout the war on Syria, as it has bombed Syrian Army or allied positions “hundreds of times,” according to war analyst Gary Brecher. Despite increased Israeli military pressure throughout the war, the Syrian government has persisted in its position on Israel. Faisal al-Makdad, Deputy-Foreign Minister of Syria, told al-Akhbar that current Israeli objectives are to force Syria to give up its role in Palestine and Lebanon; he reiterated that Syria would not give up more territory.

Armed sectarian rebel outfits have proliferated at the Israel-Syria border along the Golan. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda outfit in Syria, has an especially firm stronghold there, and Daesh maintains an outpost right at the border. Israel has been citing the Syrian Army’s preoccupation with combatting these armed groups as sound justification for future Israeli rule of the area, arguing to both the United States and citizens of Golan that the Syrian state is far too fractured to secure the Golan. The Syrian state has been destroyed, the Israeli argument goes—there will be no liberation, so it is time to stop waiting.

Only aspects of this story have made it to Western press. For example, on January 13th, 2016, Newsweek published an article by Nour Samaha on how “Golan residents find their loyalties tested.” Samaha’s story did contain one of the more devious tactics Israel has been employing in an attempt to gain loyalty from residents: in order to participate in local municipal elections, the occupied Syrians must become Israeli citizens, an option the vast majority of Golan residents have refused since the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the area. As Samaha writes, “according to a Syrian intelligence source, only 667 Golan Syrians have taken the Israeli nationality since 1981 to date.”

But contrary to the picture painted in Newsweek and in The New York Times for that matter, Israel is not simply taking advantage of an opportunity in the form of the war in Syria. Rather, it is actively creating the opportunity by supporting and nourishing the sectarian armed groups with which the Syrian Army finds itself preoccupied. The most intriguing confirmation of this fact came when Israel arrested Druze resident Siqdi Maqdt for “espionage, aiding the enemy during wartime, supporting a terrorist organization, and contact with a foreign agent.” His specific offense was to document through photographs and written reports Israeli contacts with members of Jabhat al-Nusra, information he allegedly passed along to Syrian intelligence officials. Maqt had a resistance history of his own, having spent 27 years between the years 1985 and 2012 in jail on “terrorism” charges. Upon arraignment, Maqdt delivered a simple message to reporters: “I want to bless the Syrian nation, and its proud leader Bashar al-Assad.” Miqdi’s attitude reflects the wider spirit through the Golan now: despite Israel’s mixed approach of strike-and-assuage in order to push Syrians in occupied Golan towards Israel, the pro-Syrian sentiment among Golan residents, the general desire to return to Syria as Syrians, only continues to grow as the organizational capacity of the Syrian National Defence Forces and Hezbollah improves.

Israeli-Saudi Alliance

Hezbollah’s successes in occupied Golan have certainly played a role in the recent push against the organization emanating from the propaganda engines of the US-led bloc in the Middle East. This bloc includes most prominently Israel and Saudi Arabia, their long-term alliance—historically shrouded in dissimulation practiced by both states—an increasingly public affair bolstered by ever-accumulating shared near-term interests in the capitalist-imperialist order.

On December 24th,2015, the staunchly Zionist publication The Jerusalem Post published an analysis celebrating perceived gains made by Israel in a context extending well outside of the territories of the Golan Heights, within wider Arab opinion. “Kuntar killing boosts Israel’s image among anti-Assad forces,” the headline boasted. The article took note of a Syrian journalist, Faisal al-Qassem, whose disapproving Facebook memorial for Kuntar allegedly “generated tens of thousands of likes and shares.” The article also remarked with satisfaction that al-Qassem compared the “’patriotic’ yet murderous” regimes, taken to mean Arab republics such as the Syrian one, unfavorably with “the so-called ‘treacherous’ Arab governments that look out for their citizens,” taken to mean the Gulf states.

The article further conveyed a message from “a Syrian activist who is affiliated with the southern front of the Free Syrian Army,” who allegedly tweeted: “Thank you to the Israeli heroes who killed one of the most wicked terrorists, the murderer of children and babies. Samir Kuntar, rot in hell.” This elation constituted but one part of FSA output on the matter of Kuntar’s death. On December 24th, 2015, the same publication shared news that “members of the Free Syrian Army” released a video on YouTube taking credit for the killing of Kuntar and denying Hezbollah’s claim that Israel was behind the strike. Referring to Hezbollah as “the Party of Satan,” the FSA members asserted that Hezbollah’s claims about Israeli culpability for Kuntar’s death were in fact propaganda claims intended to downplay the achievements of the FSA.

These mixed messages from the FSA—on the one hand, merely celebrating Israeli involvement in Syria for the Kuntar killing, and on the other hand, claiming to have carried out the Kuntar killing in fulfillment of Israeli aims—are par for the course from an organization that functions under a generalized umbrella header without a centralized command structure and without a clear set of political principles. The history of the FSA in southern Syria has, however, been punctuated by reports about contact and even coordination with the IDF. In September of 2014, The Times of Israel reported that FSA members were making entreaties to Israel that the IDF establish an “anti-Assad no-fly zone” in order to “win the hearts of all Syrians.” In April of 2015, the same newspaper reported that the FSA was now sending Israel well wishes for its annual “Independence Day,” going so far as to hope openly that Israel celebrate its 68th anniversary at an Israeli embassy in Damascus.

Such reports coincided with suggestions that Israel would seek to outfit, in occupied Golan, a proxy force on the order of the South Lebanon Army—the organization with which Hezbollah found itself entrenched in combat in South Lebanon until Israel’s forced withdrawal in 2000. The scattered nature of these reports perhaps casts aspersion in many different directions and upon many different claims, chief among them the claim that Israel really is growing in popularity generally throughout the Arab world and that its on-the-ground positive image is not limited simply to the FSA and allied militias.

But one component remains certain: a hallmark of Israeli strategy is to divide Arab opinion, first of all by turning opinion against its most formidable enemies in the region. The identities of those enemies should be clear, despite countless efforts to obfuscate the issue. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot recently went on the record to say that Hezbollah “today poses the most serious threat to Israel.” On January 14th, The Wall Street Journal confirmed sentiments long ago circulated by Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, that Israel prefers the “Sunnis” to the “Shi’ites.” This sectarian framing is a cover for the real point, which is geopolitical: Israel would like to increase relations with the Gulf states, as the two entities share a closeness with the United States and an animosity towards Iran. (Indeed, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put it clearly: “If I have to choose between Iran and ISIS—I choose ISIS.”) The Wall Street Journal article quotes Dore Gold, director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry: “Clearly there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region.” The price for this alliance will be continued hostility towards the Palestinian cause on behalf of the Gulf monarchies.

Madaya and the New Anti-Hezbollah Propaganda 

True to the needs of this network of interests, a new atrocity-focused “humanitarian” media campaign emerged to target Hezbollah specifically, as opposed to the usual target of these campaigns, the Syrian Army. In one sense, the campaign came as part of a routine, but one example of a larger media habit around Syria in which one round of humanitarian crisis follows another, each additional breakdown demanding with it yet another round of outrage, of calls for some new form of management and intervention, with structural issues like capitalism and imperialism occupying conversational worlds well outside those inhabited by the think-tanks, NGOs, and social scientists in which discursive hegemony around the war is cemented. (Since think-tanks, NGOs and social scientists are crisis managers, it follows that they have a class interest in crises to manage; consequently, there must be democratic pedagogy dedicated to training media consumers to investigate the funding behind campaigns that apparently appear organically out of the ether.) In another sense, the campaign came as the newest addition to the imperial tradition of atrocity propaganda, which reached infamous heights in 1990 with the “incubator babies” testimony of Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ.

Within the first week of 2016, the major US news conduits were reporting that Madaya—a Syrian town near the Lebanese border—was under a hunger-inducing siege so severe that residents were being reduced to eating leaves. Photographs of starving people—many of them later proven to be false and some of them taken from contexts outside of Syria—were furnished by anonymous activists and run on prominent Internet sources ranging from AJ+ (known for running roughly sixty-second clips on complex subject matters) to VICE News. Everywhere the culprit was the same: the “Shi’ite militia” Hezbollah had cut off Madaya and insisted on using starvation as a weapon of war.

The campaign has caught on in presses aimed at Arab audiences. The Middle East Monitor referred to Madaya as a “concentration camp where Hezbollah starves people to death,” proposing parallels between Hezbollah and Nazis. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—one of the major forces in the Syrian uprising, especially in the early stages—tweeted out an image of Hassan Nasrallah hiding snake-like behind a young civilian with a target painted on his chest. The image was notable for mirroring one of Israel’s most heavily employed psychological operations during its 2006 war with Hezbollah, which showed Nasrallah “hiding while Lebanese civilians are killed by…explosions” and “the Hezbollah leader behind three bound Lebanese civilians.” The image was, therefore, an appropriate visual for the emergent political relations of the Levant.

Before even addressing the specifics of what we know about the situation in Madaya, it is possible to flag this media campaign as explicitly political in its aims, a far cry from a neutral and purely altruistic bout of awareness-raising. After all, as an ongoing site civil and international proxy war, starvation and siege is all too common throughout Syria. One such siege has been inflicted upon the northwestern towns of Foua and Kafayra. Journalist Eva Bartlett, who has reported from Syria extensively over the past two years, attempted to bring attention to the plight of these towns as far back as August of 2015. Journalist Leith Abou Fadel commented that he and others had worked extensively to bring wider attention of Foua and Kafayra, to no avail. The reason for the lack of receptiveness is clear: Foua and Kafayra are mostly Shi’i towns, their humanitarian crises unambiguously caused by the anti-government rebel forces, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Their plight is not politically expedient.

In its official response to media allegations, Hezbollah pointed out that these very organizations control Madaya. The relative lack of attention brought to this fact in the flurries of tweets and news articles produced in English about Madaya is perhaps upon first glance rather curious considering how these two organizations had carried out a joint campaign of massacre and forced conversion against Druze populations after their armed takeover over Idlib. Upon a second glance, the omission should not be so surprising, as Ahrar al-Sham has been given editorial space by The Washington Post, where it modeled itself as a “moderate” organization.

Another claim by Hezbollah related food prices in Madaya. On October 18th of 2015, Hezbollah claimed, “tens of trucks” delivered food aid to the besieged town. The armed groups running the town proceeded to monopolize the food supply and hike the prices. On January 15, Foreign Policy published an article addressing the high food prices—the aspect of Madaya’s siege that makes it “different from Fuaa and Kefraya,” in the words of the article—while still pinning the blame on Hezbollah and refusing to consider the accusations against Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the other armed groups controlling Madaya.

The Foreign Policy article additionally pinned blame on the United Nations, labeling the institution at the very moment it was preparing more food aid to go into Madaya “complicit” with the government in Damascus, leading to the unstated conclusion that moral responsibility for the humanitarian crisis of Syria should fall elsewhere (say, the United States or its preferred NGOs). Significantly, the article’s main source of information is the Syria Campaign, an NGO funded by oil and gas industry billionaire Ayman Asfari, himself a Syrian exile based in Britain. The Syria Campaign manages several other projects; at least two of them—Planet Syria and the White Helmets—openly advocate for military intervention in Syria. The White Helmets, publicized as a civilian network, operates largely in “areas in Aleppo and Idlib controlled by Nusra.” Video footage has circulated on the Internet allegedly showing White Helmet members assisting in an execution.

Conspicuously missing from most English-language discussion of Madaya is the extensive evidence that lends credence to Hezbollah’s claims. There exists video footage featuring testimony from Madaya residents corroborating exactly what Hezbollah has been saying: that is, the anti-government fighters fully control the town’s food supply and charge outrageous prices for the most basic of food items. Even footage released by the BBC features Madaya residents yelling at anti-government rebel fighters, “You are not hungry! We are!”

A ground report from Madaya in al-Akhbar further corroborates claims against the rebels. Madaya residents confirmed al-Akhbar that the armed groups control the distribution of food. In addition to Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra presence, the report stated, there is to a lesser extent a presence of the Free Syrian Army and Daesh, the relationship between each of the organizations complicated by the fact that their membership all come from the area. Furthermore, many families wish to leave the town hosting roughly 23, 000, but are prevented from doing so by roughly 600 armed men. One interviewee told the newspaper that members of the armed groups know the family backgrounds of townspeople and commit acts of revenge.

Hezbollah’s official statement also made the claim that a ceasefire agreement had been worked out the rebels in Madaya, but that “external backers” gave orders to stay put. Who are those external backers? This is the kind of question that the better part of Western coverage of Madaya—indeed, the better part of Western coverage of Syria in general—seems designed to ignore or suppress. Humanitarian crises multiply, demanding a reinvigorated emotional response, while the political roots of the crises remain off-limits, or in the case of Madaya are inverted outright. Goebbels would be proud, really.

What is Next?

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As the popular Syrian resistance to Israel, supported by Hezbollah at logistical levels, continues to spread in the occupied Golan, anti-Hezbollah propaganda will continue to flourish in parallel. The prospect of a Syrian front of resistance to Israeli rule clearly worries Zionist state planners for short-term and long-term reasons. On a short-term basis, a successful Syrian resistance will thwart Israeli ambitions to annex Syrian territory. On a long-term basis, it will threaten Israel’s broader regional agenda, particularly on a front Israel had long counted on to be quiet.

As increased attention has been rightly paid to the Palestinian struggle among activist communities in the West over the past decade, it remains crucial to remember a few points. First, that Israel is not exclusively a threat to the Palestinian people—its policies aim to achieve hegemony over the region as whole, slaughtering the heirs to Samir Kuntar by name and face and slaughtering countless other Arabs as a matter of simple imperial course. Second, that Israel’s efforts to destabilize will only sharpen as its political relations with the Gulf States strengthen in a set of bonds. Those bonds are still overwhelmingly formed under the directive of US imperialism. It was not long after Saudi Arabia had announced its “final” decision to invade Syria before backing off and saying it required approval from the “US-led coalition.” This ought to remind us clearly as to the hierarchy of power in the world and allow us to shape our resistance efforts accordingly.

Between Dictatorships

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Since the United States assumed its current position as leading world power, and especially since the fall of its chief geopolitical rival the Soviet Union, debate has frequently appeared around the international “human rights regime.” An ideological framework with hegemonic reach, the international human rights regime arose out of the blood and ashes of two world wars spanning the first half of the 20th century. Between the specters of racist massacres of minority populations in Europe (eventually to be defined as genocide) and the totalizing warfare created by international aggressions perpetrated by particular states, most damagingly by Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, the victorious powers of the second world war developed a basic framework for international moral norms enshrined within and protected by a set of laws. This framework, finding ripest expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the newly formed United Nations in December of 1948, quickly fell into multiple crises of credibility.

The first crisis faced by the new legal system was an internal dispute having to do with its aims: would it aspire to protect minority populations from their own governments, within the borders of sovereign nation-states, or would it primarily seek to protect the sovereignty of nation-states, to safeguard the international peace that had been violated with Nazi Germany’s aggressive, war-making invasions? The answer to this question would determine political power, as the various nation-states defining the newly established “rights”—most prominently, the United States and the Soviet Union—sought to leverage those rights in their geopolitical favor.

The second crisis had to do with the very content and definition of rights—where rights come from, what they should provide and for whom. This debate extended to a contest between “negative” rights and “positive” rights, again forwarded by the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively.

The third crisis arose in relation to the unipolar dominance of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union. With no challenge to the US definition of rights and its attendant power to enforce that definition, the very idea of “human rights” fell into a performative contradiction wherein the enforcement of human rights itself became further consolidated as a tool for the systematic violation of those very alleged rights by the self-appointed enforcer.

If we seek to untangle the web of contradictions encompassed by the international human rights regime, we ought to return to earlier eras and compare and contrast the respective legacies carved out by the United States and its major challenger, the Soviet Union, on the major questions pertaining to human rights. Here I will examine the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by examining the debates carried out around it by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Then, I will look at the human rights envisaged and enforced by the United States and the Soviet Union on domestic levels. Finally, I will turn to the contemporary use of “human rights” by the United States ideologically, as it utilizes them to erode the authority of the very entities and texts that gave rise to the international human rights regime in the first place, resulting in what Stephen Gowans recently described as the “international dictatorship of the United States.” Above all, I want to use the occasion to wonder what was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union, consequently asking what could be gained by returning to its conception of human rights.

The Origins of the International Human Rights Regime

The exact locomotive for the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains a source of controversy. One part of the debate—that spearheaded by the West and its ideological schemas—highlights the role of key Western individual activists, their impetus allegedly a moral one. A broader thesis, which allows more room for socio-political and historical explanations, points to widespread revulsion at the aggressive military behavior of Nazi Germany, often interpreted as a symptom of global lawlessness.

Earlier articulations in favor of such a declaration, beginning at the close of the First World War with the League of Nations, cited the precedent of the Armenian genocide, carried out by Ottoman authorities amid the collapse of the empire during World War I. The attention to the Armenian genocide was part of the first alleged justification for a global regime of protection against human rights violations: to form an international defense against the destruction of group minorities. (It is worth pointing out that this expressed purpose potentially contradicts the traditional Enlightenment view of human rights as an inheritance, an inalienable prize, the violation of which occurs in primarily an individualistic capacity.)

For its part in addressing this concern, Japan proposed that the League commit itself to racial equality. Despite some level of support from other states, the great powers forcefully put down the proposal. Indeed, the goal of protecting the collective rights of minority ethnic and religious groups fell into disrepute between the most powerful drafters—the United States and Great Britain—once they realized such a norm could be used against them, entrenched as these two nations were in systems of racial hierarchy tailored to colonial ends. For the United States, the concern was largely domestic as it maintained an anti-Black legal regime that facilitated a high prevalence of white vigilante violence against American citizens of African descent within US borders. For Great Britain, the concern was mainly about its policies in its colonial holdings, including but not limited to Ireland and India.

A turning point emerged for the League-led international system with the disposal of the Weimar Republic and the ascendance in Germany of the Nazi Party, headed by Adolf Hitler. Withdrawing from the League of Nations, Hitler announced Germany’s rejection at the organization’s perceived call for the global assimilation of nations. Germany’s new mission would be dedicated to its own nation, to preserving its superior particularities. As described by Mark Mazower, German publications swiftly began the work of cultivating and spreading the new Nazi ideology:

“Within a short time, the implications of this approach were being drawn out in the legal and political science journals of the new Germany. Denying that international law had any validity, jurists in the Third Reich now argued that ‘the nation comes before humanity’. Each racial group, according to some, possessed its own conception of law, making the idea of a global political society a nonsense.”

Mazower quotes one such journal directly:

“[It is not thereby asserted] that the fundamental moral ideas of the German people are also to be considered as binding upon the so-called international community … It should never, and shall never, be our function to convert by example to German legal notions the negro republic of Liberia, or Abyssinia, or Red Russia, in order to construct a genuine society of nations of universal character.”

The race program embraced by Nazi Germany constituted a virulent form of reaction, fomented at both material and philosophic levels. Germany found itself destroyed and indebted after the First World War. The German ruling class embarked on the creation of a new explanation for world misery, adapted from old style liberalism. Traditional blood-and-soil justifications for the nation-state began to mix in syncretic fashion with scientific racism engineered in the United States, a society itself grounded settler-colonial expansion for the sake of a primitive accumulation staked on the extermination of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African-descended peoples. Germany’s own imperial failures were given scapegoats. Any ideologies and peoples that could be associated with the idea of equality and with the expansion of “rights”—that is, of human rights—allegedly undermined the uniquely tremendous qualities of the German nation. Paradoxically, liberalism was among the new Germany’s targeted ideologies. For liberalism introduced the idea of rights to the modern world made in its image, even if its foundational right to property served as justification for the racist ideologies of the modern world.

Domenico Losurdo has argued that the Nazi ideology embraced by one of Germany’s most widely read and revered philosophers, Martin Heidegger, was also undertaken as an effort to preserve the particularities of the German nation against the universalist ethics of liberalism and its attendant rationalism:

“Modernity is synonymous with subversion, since with its universalist ideologies (liberalism, democracy, communism) it destroys the communitarian and traditional bonds that unite the members of a given people and separates this same people from its territory and history. Inevitably, the critique of modernity ends up also concerning Jews. The black notebooks [by Heidegger] confirm this: present in many countries and attached to urban rather than rural life, Jews are the incarnation of ‘rootlessness’, ‘distance from the soil’ and thus subversion. And again, this attitude is far from surprising to the Heidegger scholar: the 2 October 1929 letter in which the philosopher emphasises the need to oppose ‘growing Judaisation within German spiritual life’, reinforcing this by rooting it in authentically German forces, is already well-known.”

Anti-egalitarianism, used concretely to promote the superiority of the German nation and proposed immunity from the very concept of international law, was thus linked intimately to anti-Semitism. Losurdo emphasizes that Heidegger’s “Judeophobia came at a moment when across the west as a whole, on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a widespread view that the true culprits for the October Revolution were Jews.” In drawing a comparison between the anti-Semitic views of American industry tycoon Henry Ford and those of Heidegger, Losurdo further reminds readers that “the origins of nazism and the ideological motives inspiring it were not exclusively German.” While Nazi reaction desired to destroy liberalism for its theoretical gestures towards equality and rights, its language and ideas would have been inconceivable without liberalism’s paradoxically exclusivist innovations.

Significantly, Losurdo traces the fascist critique of liberalism to Germany’s material devastation, carried out in the name of “imperial universalism” and “universal interventionism,” citing specifically Napolean III’s expansionism and war waged in the name of the “universal” values of “democracy” and of liberal “civilization.” The Second World War ended with a victory for the torch-bearers of that very legacy, even though it was the Soviet Red Army that made the most substantial sacrifices to put an end to the Nazi machine’s relentless race war. When the victorious powers began to plan the new world order, replacing the League of Nations with the United Nations, they established that liberalism would remain the preeminent ideological substructure for the aims of capital, as liberalism—whatever its historic relationship to fascism—had for the moment withstood fascist challenge at both the levels of war and criticism.

The philosophic underpinning for this new world order became the subject of international debate immediately after the war’s end. The substance of those debates reveal the extent to which our contemporary world, insofar as the United Nations serves as a global point of reference, is fundamentally the outcome of an American project. By 1945, the general American desire for “isolationism” had passed. Instead, America would embrace a new universalism in its image. The turn had been presaged in Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941, in which he declared the “supremacy of human rights everywhere” as the task of the future, “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation.”

But as this “supremacy” was being realized through the UN, the new basis for the state of colonial exception to universal human rights was outlined. Britain found itself once again concerned for its policies of racial segregation in South Africa as it yet again balked at the implications for the future. The British leadership still signed on to the project in hopes of enlisting the United States, the emergent superpower with domestic racist policies of its own, as a bulwark of support, seeing plainly that wherever the US went, and whatever it decided to do, it would take the world with it.

Britain’s fears threatened to materialize in several ways. Like Japan before it, China made an intervention, requesting a provision specifically addressing the issue of racial equality. The NAACP used the UN to issue an appeal regarding denial of human rights to African-Americans in the United States. If appeals regarding South Africa were to arise, the leading powers of the UN could point to the organization’s goal not to “impose standards but only to proclaim them.” Soon, however, it became apparent that the relaxed view held by the leading powers towards the plight of Black South Africans did not transfer to the conditions of national minorities in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet bloc stood surest. Human rights were fast becoming the ultimate political weapon. Once more, the final statement would fall to the Americans, who would resolve the nascent contradictions by “posing as defenders of both universal human rights and domestic state rights,” in the words of Mazower, implicitly inscribing within themselves the right to dictate the terms of both categories.

For its part, the Soviet Union abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that the rights were “meaningless without a strong central State in charge of health, education and welfare.” It further charged that the West would use the enumerated rights as a pretext to meddle in the internal affairs of the USSR. In response, the USSR pressed a case for the right of national sovereignty. These concerns—the relative importance of economic social rights as well as national sovereignty—would become ideological fault lines during the ensuing Cold War, as the comparative consequences of the rival worldviews naturally played out in the domestic spheres of both states, the USA and the USSR.

The Cold War over Right

The prominence of the Soviet Union opened up space—with the UN often serving as a vessel for propaganda—within which a Marxist critique of liberalism, and its language of human rights, could be mounted. Indeed, the accusations tossed back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union about “human rights abuses” throughout the 20th century frequently fell into discursive traps. Quite simply, the two countries were speaking two different languages, building arguments upon radically estranged theories. Whereas the United States built a regime on natural law, the Soviet Union constructed one on the basis of class, namely the working class. Whereas the United States prized negative rights and freedom of the individual, the Soviet Union valued positive rights and liberation of the collective. And whereas the United States favored the theory of a diverse marketplace (the wellspring for its theory of democracy), the Soviet Union established its rule on the theory of dialectical materialism. Lying underneath each of these competing notions was the battle between capitalism and socialism.

As Doriane Lambelet writes, “it is crucial that the West understand that the Soviets have a coherent, logically consistent legal theory that shapes their perspective on human rights.” While the rights of the individual emphasized by Western critics of Soviet collectivism are believed by adherents to be naturally endowed, staking their argument on the “natural law” theories of John Locke, practitioners of dialectical materialism determine that rights—if they are to exist at all—are man-created, or to be more accurate, class-created. On this point, Albert Syzmanski quotes Christopher Cauldwell:

“What to the proletarian is liberty—the extermination of those bourgeois institutions and relations which hold them in captivity—is necessarily compulsion and restraint to the bourgeois, just as the old bourgeois liberty generated non-liberty for the worker. The two notions of liberty are irreconcilable. Once the proletariat is in power, all attempts to re-establish bourgeois social relations will be attacks on proletarian liberty, and will therefore be repulsed as fiercely as all men repulse attacks on their liberty. This is the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat [emphasis added] and why, with it, there is censorship, ideological acerbity and all the other devices developed by the bourgeois in the evolution of the coercive state which secures its freedom.”

Syzmanski offers an example to illustrate the point, asking in the process, “how does one judge the superiority of right?” Is the right of an upper class doctor to leave to seek higher pay above the right of a worker to receive his services, especially when it is considered that the worker made the doctor’s materially abundant life possible? For adherents to the Western liberal tradition, the answer to the question is likely an axiomatic yes. From the Marxist-Leninist perspective, neither the doctor nor the worker is objectively correct, as they are both acting in their class interests. The normative answer to the question for the Marxist-Leninist thus becomes, the worker is correct, for he belongs to the revolutionary class, the class whose claims in this instance are more progressive on account of that fact that its rule is the imperative of the future. And if the upper class doctor’s perspective had been fulfilled and legitimized by years of bourgeois dictatorial rule (no matter how “democratic” its guises), its standards belonging to the rule of yesterday, the worker’s perspective shall be fulfilled in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“The dictatorship of the proletariat”—a candid phrase. It may be said simply that the bourgeoisie’s ideology (such as its ideology of “human rights”) arose as an emanation of its class needs and existence. One might add that the proletariat equipped with Marxist theory would, as the final revolutionary class, in fact be the first revolutionary class to recognize ideology as a phenomenon by virtue of thinking outside the world it inherited, and thus be able to shape its own world—“the new world,” so to speak—consciously. (Althusser went as far as to argue that “Soviet humanism” marked a “revisionist” turn away from the scientific principles of Marxism for its incorporation of the humanist ideology of the bourgeoisie, for the language of “rights” and “morals,” two primary pillars of humanism, was a dead-end if it stalled the deliverance of the proletariat’s necessary place as the final class in history.) This honest expression of class dictatorship is in actuality intended as an expression of democracy. Syzmanski explains the logic of one-party rule in the Soviet Union:

“It is… argued that it is possible for a single party to be authentically democratic provided it maintains firm roots among the most respected members of the working class and peasantry, who transmit the sentiments and interests of average working people, through the Party’s apparatus, to its leading bodies and hence to all social institutions. This conception of democracy reverts to the original usage of the term as rule by the people, rejecting the contemporary notion, predominant in Western parliamentary democracies, that popular rule is possible only by the more or less open competition of different political parties in periodic elections. The Marxist analysis of such multiparty parliamentary forms is that they can be easily manipulated, through a wide range of instrumental and structural mechanisms, to serve the propertied class and their economic system, while single party working-class based systems are much more responsive to the needs of working-class people, that is, are authentically democratic in the original sense of the term.”

Furthermore, Lambelet outlines why “human rights activists” and dissidents, so often axiomatically supported in the West, would so often be treated as menaces in the USSR:

“Dissent by individuals targeted at the socialist system is seen as an individual action against the people themselves. Because the collective is more important than the individual, the individual who attacks the collective will of the people must be repressed. Thus, dissent against the system contradicts the most basic tenets of socialism and illustrates the ideological necessity for repressing dissent.”

The “human rights movement” would further be seen, in large sections of Soviet society, as disloyal. If the safeguard of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—which is how the 1936 constitution explicitly defined the country’s system—was the State, and the dictatorship of the proletariat was the exercised power of the revolutionary working class, the state was therefore not only the guarantor or protector or promulgator of the people’s rights, but their actual deliverer.

What did those rights look like in themselves? And what did those rights look like in contrast to Western liberal rights? In the realm of political rights, sexism and racism were directly addressed, in sharp contrast to the Western liberal tradition that claims to serve individuals as individuals. The 1936 constitution for the Soviet Union established in Article 123 that all races are equal and, more decisively, that “any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.” Anti-Semitism, a particularly sinister form of racism in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, was banned at even earlier dates. In 1918, for instance, “the Council of People’s Commissars called for the destruction of ‘the anti-Semitic movement at its roots’ by forbidding ‘pogromists and persons inciting to pogroms.’”

On the question of gender, Article 122 stipulated that “the possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.” Similar in spirit, Article 137 established that “women have the right to elect and be elected on equal terms with men.” The progressive rights afforded to women dovetailed with newly won rights for the sundry nationalities that fell under Russian rule, dating back to the pre-revolution days of the Tsar and the Russian Empire.

By the time the Soviet government was established, over one hundred and fifty nationalities fell under its administration. In Central Asia, most of those nationalities held strongly onto feudal and overall patriarchal attitudes towards women’s rights. The trick for the Soviet authorities was to undermine patriarchal practices that held women back as a class without launching an ideological assault on the prevailing Islamic belief system, obviously held to esteem by its adherents. A secular education program was implemented alongside traditional Islamic teaching. According to Anna Louise Strong’s The Stalin Era, in Muslim territories, women “set up welfare clinics where native women unveiled in each other’s presence.” In these spaces, “the rights of women…were discussed.” Additionally, “big public trials were held of husbands who murdered wives; the pressure of the new propaganda gave the death sentence for what old custom had not considered a crime.” Yet, Islam was not attacked as such; rather, the freedom of religion was regarded as a crucial aspect of the right to national self-determination, which would become a defining right of the new Soviet Republic in contrast to the lexicon of rights propagated throughout the West. Upon assuming power, the Bolsheviks issued a statement to Muslim nations:

“Muslims of Russia, Tartars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz and Sarts of Siberia and Tukestan, Chechens and mountain Cossacks! All you, whose mosques and shrines have been destroyed, whose faith and customs have been violated by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia! Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are declared free and inviolable! Build your national life freely and without hindrance. It is your right. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, will be protected by the might of the Revolution, by the councils of workers, soldiers, peasants, deputies!”

Perhaps the most defining feature of the Soviet system of rights was its emphasis on positive rights rather than negative rights. In contrast to the Western system of rights, which foregrounded the right of the individual from violations of the state (violations of speech, religion, the press, etc.—failing to acknowledge the relative usefulness of these rights depending on social class and the ownership of media production), the Soviet system played up the importance of the right of individuals to certain social goods and standards of living. Article 118 of the 1936 Soviet Constitution guaranteed all citizens “the right to work,” along with “the socialist organization of the national economy, the steady growth of the productive forces of Soviet society, the elimination of the possibility of economic crises, and the abolition of unemployment.” Article 119 ensured “the right to rest and leisure” and “the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people.” None of this is to say that the Soviet system forewent negative rights altogether. Personal property was sharply distinguished from private property, and Article 128 affirmed that “the inviolability of the homes of citizens and privacy of correspondence [were] protected by law.”

The updates contained in the 1977 Soviet Constitution were partially caused by abandonment of the political leadership of founding principles of the Soviet state—above all, there was lost a fidelity to the philosophy of dialectical materialism. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was removed from the Constitution, replaced by the phrase “All People’s Government.” Vestiges of the founding principles nonetheless endured, in particular the emphasis on positive rights and social welfare. In fact, the breadth of those rights increased on account of the growth of the country’s productive forces. Article 18 protected the rights of the environment, of the need to “make scientific, rational use of the land and its mineral and water resources, and the plant and animal kingdoms, to preserve the purity of air and water, ensure reproduction of natural wealth, and improve the human environment.” Article 21 pressed for the replacement of human labor with machines. Cultural rights, the deservedness of every human being to the splendors of art, were enumerated, and world peace was listed as an ultimate goal. We should not be allowed to forget that, despite the fact that war in its various forms will be inevitable so long as class war is necessary.

The Global Dictatorship of the United States

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In 2010, it was reported that the population of the City of Fallujah in Iraq was suffering from chillingly low rates of infant mortality and shockingly high rates of cancer, leukemia, and deformation, exceeding even “those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.” The suspected culprit behind the rates is depleted uranium and white phosphorous. Concurrently, the nearby Palestinian people find themselves under a sixty-plus year assault, perpetual targets of assassination and siege. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian population languishes in an imperial cage, on their every side either insurmountable walls or harsh sea, with colonial snipers and hovering drones watching their movements to ensure they stay packed like herd animals on the sliver of earth allotted to them. They live in the ruins of refugee camps. The conditions of both these people, the Iraqis and the Palestinians, are owed to the newest overlord of world order: the United States, which purports to continue the old civilizing dream so coveted by Napoleon III before it.

The United Nations, would-be watcher of transgressions against human dignity, was in fact from its beginnings a creature of the hegemonic United States, but never more so after the demise of its Soviet critic. The right of nations to self-determination—a notion protected by national sovereignty—fell out of favor. To prove the point, we need not look further than the UN’s consecration of Zionism, which leads us to the ongoing torment against the Palestinians. (To see evidence of how anti-colonial movements sought to use the UN against the imperialists that created it, we need look no further than UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism and received support from the majority of the world.) Ironically, the Soviet Union counted itself as the first nation to recognize the independence of Israel. When the United States and Israel embraced one another as allies, the new Soviet campaign against Zionist reaction and world imperialism began. And unsurprisingly, the Palestinian position within the UN decreased considerably after the loss of the Soviet Union.

In the face of this empire and its human rights industry, the shadow of the Soviet critique sometimes still appears. The question is asked: how can the arbiter of human rights not only allow the violations against the peoples of Iraq and Palestine, but actually commit them? The United States stands indicted for hypocrisy and “double standards,” they say. But the indictment is myopic. For this empire pursues not double standards, but a single one, destroying its challengers and celebrating its accommodators. After all, if you make the rules, why should you feel compelled to follow them?

Again, as part of that shadow of the Soviet critique, anti-colonial campaigns are waged in the UN arena, with perhaps less vigor than the days of old, but no less importance. And in deciding the UN’s role in the world, the politics of genocide returns in places as disparate as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan. Within the UN, the questions of who killed whom, and how, and how many, are disputed, and while the answers to the question presented as a purely moral venture, the endeavor is entirely political. In the end, the hegemonic determiner of truths will be the decider of right and wrong and the ultimate enforcer of rights. As such, old questions about power and human rights linger. Which right shall reign supreme and lead the way to peace in this world, the global protection against genocide or the protection of sovereignty against imperial aggression? Far too often it is forgotten that our assigned cautionary tale, Nazi Germany (“assigned” insofar as the extermination of the native peoples of North America is not our benchmark, for reasons of politics and historical happenstance), stood guilty of both.

Added to the suffering of Iraq and Palestine is the recent dismemberment of Libya and Syria. The language of genocide was invoked to justify the “responsibility to protect” (“R2P”) Libyans as the claim was furnished in Western media that the Libyan government was planning a city-razing extermination campaign in the eastern city of Benghazi. The actual life-saving military campaign, carried out by NATO with the United States playing a typically pivotal role, revealed the contradiction that had come to dominate the heart of the US’s role as self-anointed savior to the subjugated and violated multitudes, albeit belatedly, after the war’s finish and the Libyan government’s overthrow. NATO, supposedly assigned to a life-saving mission, carried out and enabled many massacres of its own—including massacres specifically targeting a minority population, in this case Black and sub-Saharan African. The attention typically paid to anti-Black racism by progressive outlets amounted to precious little in an instant.  In August of 2011, at the tail end of the bombing campaign, The Independent reported that, in the words of an interviewee, “any black African in Libya is open to summary arrest unless he can prove that he was not a member of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.” And how did they “prove” they are not members of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces? Exactly. As debate raged around the NATO intervention and the “people’s revolution” it was supposedly saving, the needs of potential and imagined victims hid the fate of actual victims, an unspeakable propaganda crime for which nobody was made to pay after the media apparatus moved on from its Libya triumphalism to the next subject of NATO interest. 

The fate of Libya was, of course, part of a pattern of which Palestine and Iraq were also part. Syria became added to the list as it was reported that, from 2011 onward, the United States was covertly arming “rebel fighters” to carry out attacks against the Syrian government. Perhaps more than ever, the right to self-determination had fallen by the wayside. Based on new political realities—again, in a world without the Soviet Union—the United States had made what appears to be a final decision on the direction of human rights in the world, away from national sovereignty and towards the protection of threatened populations, the truth of those threats decided by none other than the United States. Observing this state of affairs, and noting openly the US policy to arm and train rebel fighters against his government, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja’afari made reference to a commitment on which the US had apparently turned its back, one contained in a document the US had also helped to bring into existence:

“The UN has lost its credibility. The UN has lost a lot of the principles of its founding fathers. The UN of today has nothing to do with the UN of the Charter. This is why everybody has forgotten about the Charter; people do not speak of the Charter. They don’t speak about sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, equality among members. Now they speak about the rule of law, human rights, the environment — because this is very dear to the heart of the private sector: money — partnerships. Now the Secretary-General is focused on partnerships, because he wants to privatize the United Nations.

“The budget of peacekeeping operations is three times higher than the regular budget! Rather than extinguishing the conflicts, and decreasing the number of peacekeeping operations, we have increased the peace-keeping operations. We have right now 36 special political missions, aside from 15 peacekeeping operations. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have any special political missions. This is a new phenomenon. By the way, the special political missions and the peace-keeping operations are not in the Charter. These are some of the ways they are deviating from the Charter itself. Together they consume $7.9 billion per year. And they are solving nothing.”

Re-deploying the old method of using the United Nations as a propaganda forum in which to mount anti-colonial or postcolonial arguments, Jaafari traces his own critique back to the system that triumphed (for the time being) when the Soviet Union folded, that is, capitalism. The new language for human rights, he suggests, is about profits. Saving lives, as it were, has become the latest major money-making scheme.

With “human rights” turned into profits, the void left by the Soviet challenge to the capitalist definition of right becomes more obvious than ever. The Soviet Union once preserved that challenge not simply by presenting arguments at the United Nations, but by offering material backing to actualize broader principles such as national liberation, itself a marker for self-determination. And in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, and Syria (to make only a beginning for a much longer list) self-determination is what continues to be so stringently denied. Lost is the right for a nation to decide what the word “right” even means. Without that ability, whatever other rights we may discover or create become gambits for the powerful, when it is the powerful whose caprices the concept of “human rights” should be designed to prevent if the phrase is to have any meaning at all.

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b021122w 22th November 2002 NATO Summit Meeting in Prague, Czech Republic North Atlantic Council Meeting at the level of Heads of State and Government. Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Summit Meeting. – General View

Anti-Imperialism at a Crossroads

As the United States and its NATO coalition planned and executed a bloody proxy assault against Syria, it was exceedingly difficult for a time to find media outlets providing much-needed skepticism about the “revolution” packaging the Western media apparatus had assigned the war. And for that time, Russia Today—as the propaganda outlet of a counter-hegemonic state—provided exactly that service. But as the scope of US-led regime change operations increased, so did the size of the refugee population, adding even more urgency to questions around refugees. As the United States and Europe violated the sovereignty of postcolonial Middle Eastern states at will, they raised their own borders more vigilantly than ever, eager to keep out the “barbarian hordes.” Right-wing culturalist tropes began to be raised about the ostensible threat the dispossessed masses of the Middle East posed to the “traditional values” of “Western civilization.” Among the leading perpetrator circulating those tropes has been Russia Today. Here we see plainly another one of the largest vacancies left by the demise of the Soviet Union.

In the era of the Soviet Union, the flag of anti-imperialism was carried ably by the Soviet bloc, placing the cause firmly into a framework including also anti-racism, the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, and above all, socialism. While there is currently no shortage of movements and even states still upholding these values, it helps us to remember that the bourgeois Russian state that secured power by means of long-percolating counterrevolution, does not reliably propagate such values, even if it differs from the United States dramatically as a social, economic, and political formation. “Health scare in Denmark as refugees bring back diphtheria after 20yr absence,” reads one recent RT headline, framing refugees as a diseased alien force threatening the literal health of the European body politic. Another recent RT article decries “feminist apologetics” for “sexual assault” carried out by “Muslim refugees,” instructing European men to reclaim the masculinity that is the core of Europeanness.

This is fascist ideology spread by RT as a scapegoat, a result of the Russian bourgeoisie’s refusal to lay direct blame for groups like Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra on the highest culprit: the United States. Vladimir Putin has come close enough to naming the US, implying that he certainly knows full well how it works and why. In 2014, at the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin said: “Do you really not understand who is fighting in Syria? They are mercenaries, mostly. Do you understand they are paid money? Mercenaries fight for whichever side pays more. So they arm them and pay them a certain amount. I even know what these amounts are.” But as time has rolled on, the Russian bourgeoisie has pursued a line suggesting the Daesh is out of control of the US, which might have interests of its own in destroying the organization. Although it has objectively served as a counterweight to the US regime change operation in Syria, preserving pieces of a state the US has sought to destroy, the Russian state’s true interests lie at the moment in quite simply upholding sovereignty and the international system at its most elementary level—an aim that in itself ought to be supported in opposition to US lawlessness—and not in confronting either imperialism or capitalism as such, as workers’ states would seek to do.

The result has been at times politically confusing. On the one hand, liberal imperialists have generally been relatively welcoming to refugees, showing public concern for their plight, after having spent years cheering on the destructions of their home countries in the name of “progressive” movements. When they have not opted outright for the role of cheerleader, liberal imperialists have effectively forestalled holistic critique of US imperialism in the age of Obama, and in the process short-circuited militant oppositional movements, insisting that an unapologetic rejection of the US campaigns in Syria and Libya is a disgraceful denial of the “agency” of supposed movements we might otherwise help bring to victory by signaling virtuous concern on the internet. On the other hand, the media role of organizations like RT in fomenting opposition to imperialist regime change threatens to embolden among anti-imperialists nativist elements in the United States and Europe, which reject regime change not out of internationalist solidarity with its victims, but out of a fear that violations of sovereignty threaten cultural homogeneity. Consequently, right-wing “anti-imperialists” are often anti-refugee.

In order to reclaim the internationalist and anti-imperialist legacy bequeathed by Marxism-Leninism, it will be necessary to reiterate and explain that right-wing “anti-imperialists”— Third Positionists, American constitutionalists and libertarians, and so on—are in fact not anti-imperialist at all, only appearing to be anti-imperialist in the face of left media networks in service to the interventionists, from ’68 leftist intellectuals such as Bernard Henri-Levy to old-style Yankee crusaders for the White Man’s Burden such as John McCain. The concretization of regime change as official policy comes out of the demands of finance capital, but there is nonetheless an ongoing debate within imperialism about how it should be managed. It must be kept in mind, for example, that right-wing libertarians in the United States, while objecting to regime change doctrine, wish to save the United States, not to put an end to the settler-colonial prisonhouse of nations built on genocidal property claims. This serves as a major distinction from the goals of communists, one that is often played out at the US-Mexico border, where the defenders of US “sovereignty” form minutemen brigades either killing migrants from Latin America, their homelands torn asunder by US-managed drug wars and coup d’etats, or delivering them to the federal government, which proceeds to throw them in concentration camps. (This scenario points to another contradiction to navigate: “sovereignty” for empires versus sovereignty for empire’s targets.)

The debate within imperialism transpires within the walls of US governance itself. Seymour Hersh’s article “Military to Military” shed a light on this dispute, revealing a miniature mutiny on the part of the US military against the White House and the CIA on Syria policy: “Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.” Members of the Joint Staff, it turned out, had been troubled by the policy to “ignore” the intelligence produced on the political character of the organizations that the US was funding, arming, and training on the ground, and instead wanted to assist the Syrian government in combatting groups like Daesh. This objection mirrored earlier internet memes in which US soldiers, their faces hidden, held up signs declaring that they would not serve in Syria on behalf of al Qaeda, insisting that such a mission does not at all correspond to the reasons why they signed up. Central to this objection is a naïve (but logical from a soldier’s perspective) belief in the stated mission of the US military—a voluntarist belief that the mission has in fact been corrupted by bad apples. When the objection to US support for Israel arises from within the military, those bad apples may be defined as the Zionists, Israelis, Jews, and their lobbies; in the case of support for Deash, the bad apples may be Muslims generally (perhaps Obama specifically, his birth certificate perhaps still believed to be questionable), or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In either case, the bad apples corrupt the mission of all-American WASP good ol’ boys.

The duty of communists is to construct a deeper critique to build a truly revolutionary movement. The foundations of capitalism and private property, and all the forms of oppression and exploitation they have engendered, shall be targeted at root, and eradicated. And the world system and the discourses that capitalism created, around statehood and the rule of law and human rights, will only begin to be replaced when its leading agent has fallen. The serious dialectical materialist thinks as an anti-humanist, knowing full well that humanism and its human rights regime is an invention of the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeoisie. But how the dialectical materialist acts depends on the conditions. The wholesale destruction of human rights in general will be neither possible nor desirable until the conditions which necessitate them are overthrown. In the mean time, proletarian movements may use them without tailing them or depending on them.

The experiences of 20th century actually existing socialism provide us lessons, advice, anchors, to carry out our duty. And for our current dilemma and future dilemmas, the answer will lie in neither liberal interventionism nor nativist reaction, but international socialism.

More suggested reading: “Vulnerable Dignity, Enchained Rights: On a Suggestion by Maximilian Forte,” Red Maistre: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=10855