Monday, 18 October 2010

Palestine And The Theory of Non-Historic Peoples

The Civil War in Gaza, between Fatah and Hamas, showed a deep rift within the Palestinian people. It has resulted in, effectively, two Palestinian proto states, in Gaza and the West Bank. The fighting, between Israel and Lebanon, was accepted by most observers as a proxy war, already, between the US and Iran, with the US backing Israel, and Iran and Syria backing, supplying and arming Hezbollah.
Similarly,the US backed Fatah in Gaza, as did its Sunni client states, who promised arms and finance to Fatah, to be supplied with the consent of Israel. As with the promises made to Sunnis, in Iraq, by the Gulf States, large amounts of finance were offered to Fatah. Similarly, Iran, and probably Syria, are reported to have backed Hamas with similar supplies of arms if not finance.

As my old man used to tell me, when I was a nipper, sitting on his knee, the first tool of the bosses is divide and rule. It is a tactic US imperialism has used successfully for most of the post war period. Often, it has been used in conjunction with dirty tricks by the CIA whose operations thrive in conditions of chaos, to play one side against another, and, when conditions are ripe, to back some local strongman to take over and establish a regime tied to the US. But the chaos in Gaza, in particular, and the division of the Palestinian people, demonstrates an argument I have put forward now for more than 20 years, it is that the demand for a two-states solution for Palestine-Israel cannot work, if not that it is, in fact, reactionary. It cannot work because the necessary conditions for nation building do not exist in the West Bank and Gaza – in fact they exist even less today than they did 20 years ago when I first raised this argument.
The West Bank has been reduced to a series of discontinuous Bantustans separated by Israeli settlements, as I forecast would happen, and the new “Security Fence” breaks up these communities even more. In Gaza, the Palestinians have shown themselves incapable of undertaking even the most basic functions of a state in maintaining order, even allowing for the actions of the Israeli state in creating conditions which made that more difficult. But, the Israeli state has been able to justify those incursions, because of continued terrorist attacks, on Israel, by those elements, within Palestine, that would never accept the existence of Israel, whatever arrangements were made for Palestinians, again as I said was obvious would happen 20 years ago.

The Palestinians simply lack the cohesion and internal resources to create their own nation state. That is why, like all such peoples in the past, they have looked to any external forces that might lend a hand in achieving their goals, only to find, as every such peoples have, in the past, that these external allies use them for their own purposes before discarding them.
And, like such peoples in the past, these external allies are always reactionary forces of one kind or another – Saddam Hussein, now Iran’s clerical-fascists, and US imperialism. The fight for national liberation can be a liberating, progressive struggle, but, even in the programme of Lenin and the Comintern, it was only such because that struggle was undertaken by revolutionary forces, and, in particular, was led by the working class dragging a revolutionary peasantry behind it. But, no such prospect exists for Palestine. Marxists believe in progressive struggles being undertaken by the working class through its own independent class action, that is the basis of the Comintern’s policy on the National Question. But, for the working class to bring about a two states solution, in Palestine-Israel, it would require the working class, in both Israel and Palestine, to be effectively at a level of class consciousness where not just a solution to the national question was on the agenda, but a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. But, then the question of two-states would become rather subordinate anyway. Without those conditions, the only possibility of a two states solution being established is if it is imposed by imperialism, which is hardly progressive in itself, and would, almost certainly, be the conditions which would mean that the solution soon fell apart into increased fighting and bloodshed.

It is not something Marxists like to address in today’s world, because there is a feeling that some nice solution has to be found for every problem in the world. Even more, to raise the idea that a people should not be entitled to nationhood, to self-determination is one that is anathema to socialists that have imbibed the notions of petit-bourgeois democracy of the type that leads to idiot anti-imperialism. In order to understand the argument, it is necessary to reach back in time, beyond the discussions of the National Question, by the Comintern, back into the 19th century, when these issues were discussed by Marx and Engels,
in relation to Europe, and their development of the idea of “Non-historic peoples”, peoples that history had by-passed, that, like the Palestinians, lacked the internal resources for nationhood, and who, like the Palestinians, ended up on the side of all kinds of reactionary forces in the revolutionary struggles of the time. Again, these writings, of Marx and Engels, are ones that many of today’s Marxists do not like to have raised. Many Marxists want their socialism to be of the pure type, which is only found in textbooks, and want the socialist heroes to be like the cowboys in the white hats, pure as driven snow, rather than real human beings, trying to deal with difficult questions, in conditions not of their choosing. There have been many attempts, by such Marxists, to massage the odd word or phrase, of Marx and Engels, to make them sound less harsh, in order to assuage the petit-bourgeois sensibilities of the milieu in which such people often operate. The case of the “Non-historic peoples” is a case in point.

The best analysis, of Marx and Engels position, is that given by Roman Rosdolsky. Rosdolsky had been a leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, in the 1920’s. In the 1930’s, he was one of the leaders that opposed Stalin’s invasion of the Ukraine.
He first addressed the question, in the 1920’s, when he wrote his doctoral thesis on the issue, but his best known work was written in 1948, when he had moved to the US. For obvious reasons, at the time, he had difficulty in getting a publisher for the work, and wanted to maintain a low political profile. Other, émigré, Ukrainians had managed to get a Publisher, in Germany, but, when Rosdolsky found that this Publisher was linked to the Nazis, he obviously refused. In fact, given the nature of Marx and Engels writings, on the issue, and the experience of the very peoples – the Czechs and Slavs – at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin, in the previous period, it was mainly reactionary right-wing forces that were keen to utilise Marx and Engels writings whereas left-wing and liberal elements wanted to hush them up.
In the meantime, Rosdolsky filled his time usefully. He wrote one of the best accounts of Marx’s Capital – “The Making of Marx’s Capital” – utilising Marx’s notes in The Grundrisse. He corrected many of the distortions of Marx’s work, introduced by the Stalinists. For example, he demonstrated, contrary to the claim of Stalinism – but also adopted by many Trotskyists keen to foresee the kind of social crisis needed for a political revolution – that Marx did not have a theory of immiseration for the working class. Out of several hundred references, to wages, in Marx’s work, Rosdolsky said that there was only one that could possibly be interpreted in that way.

Rosdolsky’s work “Engels and the ‘Non-historic Peoples:The National Question in the revolution of 1848”, was published by Critique Books in 1986 (Critique 18-19) in an edition translated and edited by John-Paul Himka.
To illustrate the problem, referred to above, and the attitude of modern Marxists, Himka says in his introduction,to Rosdolsky's work,

“However, this book in particular posed a problem. It concerned some embarrassing statements made by Marx, and above all, Engels with regard to east European peoples. During the revolution of 1848-49 Marx and Engels had characterised most of the Slavic peoples (the outstanding exception being the Poles) and other East European peoples (such as the Romanians and Saxons of Transylvania) as nonhistoric, counter-revolutionary by nature and doomed to extinction. The statements moreover, were saturated with insulting epithets (pig-headed, barbarian,robber) and ominous sounding threats (a bloody revenge that would annihilate these reactionary peoples).”

Himka says,

“I will not try the reader’s patience with an account of the vicissitudes involved in bringing this translation into print, except to quote from one letter I received in 1980 which has the virtue of clearly expressing an attitude that I discovere to be distressingly prevalent on the English-speaking left: ‘The work as it stands could( and certainly would) be used by the opportunists to attack Marx-Engels….In the context of today’s struggles his [Rosdolsky’s] book can serve only to create confusion in the anti-imperialist movement’”

In a note, Himka says the letter was from a member of a British left-wing group.
But Rosdolsky shows that Marxists too can be subject to social pressure. As Himka himself points out, Rosdolsky’s conclusions, in the 1948 work, are almost the direct opposite of the conclusions he arrived at in his thesis of the 1920’s. In the 1920’s, he had concluded that Marx and Engels’ position was entirely vindicated by the historical materialist method. Yet, in 1948, he concludes that they had been wrong. He argues that their position was based on a too optimistic view of the potential for socialist revolution in 1848, a view which led them to ignore the class elements of the struggles of the peasants in these countries in order to retain the support of those forces – including sections of the European nobility – with which the working class was in alliance in 1848. But it seems to me that this is to turn Marx and Engels into “idiot imperialists” as a mirror image of today’s idiot anti-imperialists.

There undoubtedly was some element of chauvinism in the works of Marx and Engels, which was inevitable in the times that they were writing. It is also true that Marx and Engels themselves concluded that they had overstated the revolutionary potential of the times. In fact, as they were later to state, in 1848, Britain was the only country where capitalism was dominant, and, as they believed that socialism was impossible without capitalism first developing and socialising the productive forces, a socialist revolution was clearly impossible in 1848.
They undoubtedly also bent the stick somewhat polemically against Bakunin who, basing himself on the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, – a potential Marx and Engels showed did not exist because of the atomised nature of the peasantry (see Marx – 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte where his class theory is most clearly set out) -argued for the revolutionary nature of these struggles, but, it seems to me, that, in fact, Rosdolsky was right in the 1920’s when he argued that Marx and Engels based themselves on historical materialism, and that he is wrong in his later appraisal. Marx and Engels theory of Historical Materialism certainly does put class at the forefront of explaining historical development. It is certainly within that context that determination of which forces are progressive can be determined. But it is Economistic to think that class is the only criterion utilised by Marx and Engels in orienting themselves in the world they were in. It is quite obvious that nationality and nationalism were and are important cleavages and ideologies running through societies, as well as class, and, as I said at the beginning, struggles, based around nationality, can only be progressive if they are viewed in the context of historical reality, of who is leading those struggles, and by what means. Indeed, nationality, as a cross cutting cleavage, is one that is usually reactionary it cuts across class lines, dividing the working class, and indeed tending to unite sections of the working class with its own bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie. It is not at all surprising, to me, then, that Marx and Engels, especially at a time of heightened revolutionary activity, such as 1848, but not just at that time, should conclude that some such struggles were reactionary, that those conducting them were incapable of using their own internal resources for achieving their aims, that, in order to do so, they had to ally themselves with reactionary international forces – at that time with Tsarist Russia who Marx and Engels viewed in the same way that some Marxists today view the US i.e. a force to be opposed in all circumstances, and almost to be defeated by any means.

This is not the place, and, in any case, I do not have time, at the moment, to elaborate further on Marx and Engels theory of the “non-Historic Peoples”, but it is well worthwhile for comrades to read Rosdolsky’s work, because these writings of Marx and Engels are important works, which a lot of the modern Marxist movement has tried to sweep under the carpet. I believe that Rosdolsky’s explanation is wrong, and a reflection of the petit-bourgeois pressure that often inflicts the Marxist movement. To argue that Marx and Engels were proved wrong, because the peoples they said were non-historic eventually did achieve statehood, is facile. They dealt with reality as it was when they were writing. Neither they nor anyone else can deal with reality as it exists 100 years into the future. In the intervening period, rather important changes, which would have caused them to re-evaluate the situation, based on changed material conditions, occurred such as the break up of the old European Empires during the First World War, for one thing.

The reality is that the Palestinians are not the only people in the world that have been shown to be “non-historic” many such peoples exist without their own state. We should judge each on its merits to determine whether the struggle of any people is progressive or reactionary in the same way that Marx and Engels did e.g. in their support for the struggle of the Poles, rather than simply read off some mantra that socialists must always support the right of self-determination.
We have a duty to support all peoples against oppression. Where a people seek to argue for their own self-determination, we have a duty to support their right to put forward that case, free from intimidation and aggression from other states, but we have no absolute duty to support such a demand ourselves. On the contrary, where the interests of the working class internationally are weakened by such a struggle we should say so, and argue against it, and for workers unity across borders.

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