Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

Anti-imperialism, like anti-Zionism, is hardly sufficient cause to categorize a group or individual as “progressive.” Vladimir Lenin, whose pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1915) remains by far the most influential work on the topic to date, specifically warned against lending material or ideological aid to regressive political groups. In his “Draft Theses on Colonial and National Questions” (1920), he wrote:

With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

  1. first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;
  2. second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;
  3. third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

Lenin was expanding here on some ideas he’d laid out in an earlier work, from 1915. Rebutting Kievsky, he wrote:

Imperialism is as much our “mortal” enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Consequently, once the author [Kievsky] admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (“actively resisting” suppression means supporting the uprising), he also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.

Here we arrive at the crux of the matter: the tricky, historically fraught relationship between nationalism and internationalism in socialist movements. What relationship is there, if any, between national liberation and global revolution? In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a dispute over demands for national autonomy reverberated throughout the Second International. Oppressed nationalities living in multinational empires (e.g., the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires) and in the overseas colonies of European empires (e.g., the German, French, and British Empires) agitated for secession and self-government on a linguistic, geographic, or ethnic basis. These disparate movements rallied around the banner of a “right to national self-determination.”

Essentially, there were three different sides to this debate. First, there was Lenin, who argued that national liberation struggles could be supported within a frame of imminent world revolution, in the context of inter-imperialist war and widespread rebellion in the colonies. Second, there was Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected even Lenin’s highly qualified defense of national self-determination out of fear that this might lead to the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities within the states thus founded. Third, there were the Austromarxists, who upheld the principle of “national-cultural autonomy” with separate schools for each nationality to celebrate its unique language and culture. Lenin and Luxemburg both thought this amounted to chauvinism, and opposed it resolutely.

By 1959, the council communist Paul Mattick already noticed that shifting conditions had rendered the arguments of both Lenin and Luxemburg moot. “[The postwar] ‘renaissance’ of nationalism contradicts both Rosa Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s positions on the ‘national question’,” Mattick observed. “Apparently, the time for national emancipation has not come to an end. However, the rising tide of anti-imperialism does not serve world-revolutionary socialist ends.” While Lenin may have had the cooler head in the debate, and though his positions perhaps made sense given the impending interimperialist war, today Luxemburg’s unwavering opposition to nationalism — even national self-determination — seems more correct in retrospect. Loren Goldner, editor of the left communist online publication Insurgent Notes, made a similar point in 2011. “We consider nationalism in the current epoch to be reactionary,” Goldner explained. “Nationalism in the period from the French Revolution until approximately World War I could play an historically progressive, even revolutionary, role (i.e., in the era of bourgeois revolutions) when the formation of viable nation states out of the old dynastic order (e.g., Germany, Italy) was still possible. Even then, the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ was never part of the revolutionary tradition as an abstract principle, separate from a strategic geopolitical orientation to unite the working class (which is always international).”

George Lincoln Rockwell and members of the American Nazi Party attend a Nation of Islam summit in 1961 to hear Malcolm X speak"Don't be upset, Hitler! The Jews of Palestine are helping you" (poster, 1930s)

Zionism was from the very outset a right-wing deviation from mainstream European socialism. As a form of Jewish nationalism, Zionism abandoned a commitment to international working-class emancipation in favor of a mythic homeland. Until the end of World War II, it never could claim the adherence of a majority of Jews. Bundists, the Zionists’ main rival recruiting Jewish nationalists in the Pale of Settlement, viewed the idea of a “return” to the Holy Land — a place none of them had ever been — as an unattainable pipe-dream. Why travel to a foreign country when Jews have a territory ready-made in the shtetl? Few could be arsed to learn Hebrew. Besides, the thought of building communes in the desert (kibbutzim) did not hold wide appeal. Not by accident was it so widely seen as utopian by Marxists who came in contact with it, such as Trotsky. At the same time, Russian Marxists never supported Bundism either: “Marxists resolutely oppose nationalism in all its forms, from the crude reactionary nationalism of our ruling circles and the Right Octobrist parties down to the more or less refined and disguised nationalism of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties” (Lenin). Paul D’Amato is therefore mistaken to suggest that the reason the RSDLP did not endorse Zionism was because it represented “a form of reactionary rather than progressive nationalism.” If this were so, the RSDLP might have supported Bundism, but alas it did not. “Progressive nationalism” was, and remains, a contradictio in adjecto.

Labor Zionism successfully consolidated a mass proletarian base in the early decades of the twentieth century. Ber Borochov, founder of Poale Tsion, unsuccessfully tried to reconcile Marxism and Zionism. He produced some lulzy screeds against Jabotinsky’s chauvinist “Hebraism,” by which Jews were supposed to abandon the debased Germanisms of Yiddish in favor of the sacred tongue, but Borochov was otherwise rather confused about the Marxist stance toward the nationalities question. During the Russian Civil War, special units composed primarily of Labor Zionists fought in the Red Army. This is hardly surprising, though, given that the pogromist Black Hundreds were fighting for the White Army. In the 1920s, after the end of NEP, Stalin decided the Jews deserved a homeland after all. So he created Birobidzhan, a Jewish autonomous oblast’ located in a barely habitable region of eastern Siberia, just a few clicks north of Manchuria (where the Japanese imperial army was massacring tens of thousands). Kibbutz east of Irkutsk! Following the revelations of the Nazi genocide, and the virtual annihilation of East European Jewry, Zionism finally won over a majority of Jews. Even Stalin reckoned this would be a good outcome, and so the Soviets began arming the fanatical Zionist Haganah with weapons shipped from Czechoslovakia. Using Soviet military surplus, the Haganah carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Arab population in the region — an atrocity that became known as the Nakbah.

When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, the USSR was among the first countries to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. It was the first to legitimize Israel de jure, and the second to do so de facto (the United States was the first). Stalin had nothing but good things to say about the Jewish state, and his portrait hung in households across Israel. A Stalinist version of the Passover Haggadah was printed as late as 1953. Just a year or so after its foundation, as Israel moved to strengthen diplomatic ties with France in 1949, Stalin zigzagged his way to a complete 180. Now Israel was a “fascist” country. Vintage Stalin. Since that time Zionism has only grown more reactionary, shedding the socialist and secular elements that once were central to its ideology. Today it has pushed the Arab populace it dispossessed in 1948 and 1967 into a smaller and smaller space, which it monitors and regulates with a massive military presence along its border. Gaza is walled off by a hypersecure zone of exclusion. Paradoxically enough, Israel is simultaneously a garrison state with expansionist ambitions. “Settler-colonialism” may sound like a Maoist mating call, and it is, but it is also descriptively accurate within certain limits. Jewish settlers living in the Occupied Territories tend to be fanatics. Every couple of years, regardless of pesky rocket fire or acts of individual terrorism (isolated or coordinated), the IDF slaughters a few thousand Palestinian civilians. To be sure, Israel is not exceptional compared to other US regional allies in this respect; Saudi Arabia has been waging a continuous proxy war in Yemen for more than a year, while the Turkish government oppresses ethnic Kurds and crushes all political dissent.

In conclusion, a few outstanding points. There is a small kernel of truth in what Livingstone said regarding the collusion of some Zionist groups with the Nazis. Anachronisms about the timeline of Israel’s existence aside, the ZVfD did indeed offer to comply with Hitler’s program of transferring the Jewish population of Germany to Palestine. Lenni Brenner’s 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis leaves much to be desired as a work of historical scholarship, but the veracity of the Ha’avara Agreement is beyond doubt. German Zionists feared what might happen to the Jews if they stuck around, so it must in part be understood as a desperate bid for a compromise (albeit one which served their longstanding aspirations to nationhood). Brenner is a bit of a showman, an amateur who makes up for his lack of formal training with bluster and ballyhoo. He does have a realistic sense of the antisemitism which underlies Islamist ideology; Brenner freely admits “it is strong in Hamas.” Most would consider him a moderate today, as he favors a two-state solution achieved by a “secular bi-national movement.” Regardless, the fact that certain Zionists were willing to work with the Nazis does no more to discredit Zionism than the fact the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem met with Hitler discredits the Sunni faith. Netanyahu made a right ass of himself last October when he sought to implicate the religious beliefs of Palestinian Arabs in the Nazi genocide, claiming the Final Solution was really Haj Amin al-Husseini’s idea. Nazi Germany did try to court Muslims in pursuing its aims, as David Motadel has shows in Islam and Germany’s War, though it was rather less successful than its leaders would have liked.

Nationalism sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. Ad hoc cooperation between different nationalist movements, even those which regard each other as mortal enemies, is more a result of the fact that their goals do not necessarily conflict. Separatist aims are mutually complementary. Zionists wanted a Jewish homeland where the Jews dominated all other groups; Nazis wanted a German homeland where the Germans dominated all other groups. Conflict would only erupt if the territorial claims of each group overlapped — think of the revanchist ideology of Boulange or Maurras, who felt Alsace-Lorraine rightfully belonged to France. Here we begin to understand the flirtation between the American Nazi Party and the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. Both organizations had separatist aims. This does not mean that Hitler was a Zionist, or that the Zionists were Nazis. Just as it did not mean Elijah Muhammad was a white supremacist, or that George Lincoln Rockwell was a black nationalist.

Stepping back from this confusion, we may ask whether any lessons might be drawn from the history covered above. Does the experience of Zionism, nationalism, and socialism in the twentieth century have anything to teach communists today? What is its significance for us moving forward? Provisionally, we may answer that truly emancipatory politics can at present only proceed from international, perhaps even anti-national, premises. Groups like Gegen Kapital und Nation have already made some headway in this, building upon the arguments of Wolfgang Pohrt and others. Antigerman excesses notwithstanding, critiques of the nation as such — not just in its naked ideological form as vulgar nationalism, but as an exclusionary form of imagined community — could prove useful here. Loosely affiliated national parties, such as existed during the period of the Second International (1889-1914), will no longer cut it: a world party is required to execute global revolution. Elected officials operating in this or that country cannot be allowed to prioritize the particular interests of their own national bourgeoisie over the universal interests of the international proletariat. Finally, and most importantly, solidarity with the victims of national oppression must not shade into support for the nationalism of the oppressed. Zionism itself provides the best example of this, and should serve as a cautionary tale for Marxists who still think national liberation is a worthy project.

4 thoughts on “Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

  1. “. . . as Israel moved to strengthen diplomatic ties with France in 1949, Stalin zigzagged his way to a complete 180. Now Israel was a “fascist” country . . . Since that time Zionism has only grown more reactionary, shedding the socialist and secular elements that once were central to its ideology.”

    So Stalin was right to turn his back on Israel at that point, correct? I’ve only followed your blog for a short time, but I’ve noticed that you never seem to miss an opportunity to badmouth Stalin. He made mistakes certainly, but he did much more good than bad it seems to me.

    When you slander or libel Stalin, the CIA smiles.

  2. I have my own opinion on the matter, but I want to know what does your framework implies for countries like Bolivia, which blend populist nationalism, Bolivarian regionalism (pan-latinamercanism), indigenous liberation and communism?

    I’m Chilean, and as a Latin-American I have a strong sense of national self-determination and preservation of folk culture. Those have been important elements of resistance against American and European depredation during recent history… But I kind of agree with you, actually. How can you shift the ideology of those governments (Venezuela, Bolivia etc) towards a non-national sentiment without loosing the power to right-wing or faux-leftist neoliberals?

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