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The Sectarianism & Spectacle of Palestine-Skeptic Marxism


“I do not mean that we should ally ourselves exclusively, or even strategically, with the by now large and incoherent number of small left-wing parties. These parties, however important their transitional role at one or another moment in American history, are evanescent, transient parties – more sectarian and divisive than not, more theoretically than politically active, more likely to be puristic and hair-splitting than they are likely to be mass parties.”

Edward Said, “The Palestine Question and the American Context.” 1980

There is this tendency for Palestine-Skeptic Marxists to consider the unceasing critique of American foreign policy as Stalinism. Nonetheless, it’s paradoxically not Stalinism for them to keep critiquing the anti-imperialist Left’s stance on international issues, even if the latter turns out to be right about a particular issue. Worse, even if the international community, centrists, and libertarians happen to reach an unprecedented consensus and now agree with the left on the relevance of Palestinian rights, the Palestine-skeptic Marxists would still double down with an insistence that borders on the kind of zero-sum game they criticize so well elsewhere. We should have an environment where one can perfectly and simultaneously remain critical of the protester left and of Israel–the object of the protest. What the Palestine-skeptic marxists provide instead is a critique that lacks the above-mentioned agility because it borrows talking points from the spokespersons of one side of the conflict (thousands of miles away), all in order to respond to their intellectual opponents in the US.

In his article about the Palestinian choice between wage slavery or extermination, Chris Cutrone argues that the Palestinians, through their petit-bourgeois identitarian organizations, excluded themselves from labor politics and that it was their own political violence in the 2000s that put them behind the walls and in open-air prisons. They have outlasted their usefulness as wage-workers to the Israeli capitalist state, jeopardizing themselves and making themselves superfluous and, therefore, exterminable. According to this Palestine-skeptical version of the story, after October 7th, the PFLP’s tailing of Hamas, based upon the red-green (Socialists allied with Islamists’) ideology of the main Palestinian Marxist organization, had borne its fruit. Via the violence of October 7th, the permanent schism of Palestinian labor from the Israeli capitalist state was complete.

The problem with this oversimplified hypothesis is that it takes different snapshots of the timeline and presents these as absolute truths. It is true that since the establishment of the Palestinian political professional-managerial class after the Oslo Accords in 1993, this group has functioned as an interlocutor between the Palestinian working class and Israeli occupation-authorities, and that the creation of this new regime of relations hampered the entry and the exit of Palestinian labor to the main sites of the means of capitalist production inside Israeli territory. Nevertheless, what did exist before these institutions?

In 1987, the mostly non-violent First Intifada erupted, which was an enormous popular protest and worker strike movement, with a huge degree of political success. That was a nightmare for the Israeli state, and that was the thing that led to disengagement from Palestinian labor.

On the eve of the Oslo negotiations, the Palestinian and Israeli sides harbored different intentions. Palestinian envoys wanted the creation of a Palestinian State: the Leftists and the Marxists with memberships in Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the People’s Party and other Marxist organizations (a spectrum which Cutrone entirely skips over) saw that establishing a stable government and a prosperous state would lead to improving the conditions of the Palestinian working class, connecting it not only with Israeli labor, but integrating it into a pan-Middle Eastern conception of labor. Hence, the national council of the PLO, to which the above-mentioned Marxist organizations belong, had amended the PLO’s Constitution to halt all armed struggle activities. However, the Israeli withdrawal plan from the West Bank never was enacted, due to an internal crisis within the Israeli political system which culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

The intention of Israeli “moderates” like Rabin, at the beginning of the Oslo process, was to contain Palestinian protest and worker movements through state-building measures. After his assassination in 1996, the strategy of the new pro-settler government towards the negotiation process was to contain that which proved more easily constrainable–the Palestinian professional-managerial class–in ways that allowed Israeli impresarios of the settler PMC, along with the settler lumpen-proletariat, which is dependent on the welfare state, to take over most areas of the West Bank, turning themselves the ruling ethno-nationalist petit-bourgeois organization in the occupied territories. For almost 20 years, Palestinian two-state negotiators sought to provide a slew of security assurances to the Israeli political class in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal, including the suggestion of NATO peacekeepers, without results. The more time passed without establishing a Palestinian state, the more the Palestinian PMC became exclusively a buffer, a No Man’s Land between the Palestinian work-force and the Israeli military and capitalist administration in the territories.

Nowadays, for the settler-controlled Israeli government, even the Palestinian national PMC is also becoming disposable, as the Israeli cabinet prepares financial sanctions that would collapse the PA to punish its involvement in international court cases against Israel. The UAE, a partner in Trump-Kushner’s Abraham Accords (puzzlingly supported by Cutrone) has also decided to financially and politically isolate the PA.

One could argue of course, as left Palestine-skeptics do, that Palestinian Marxist organizations which got on the bandwagon of Oslo, were from the outset wrongheaded for having embraced Palestinian nationalism. One could argue that a two-state solution would intensify working-class fragmentation. Likely so, but even several Israeli Marxist organizations have the slogan “two states: one future.” Class fragmentation in peacetime is much better than class fragmentation in war, and the constant occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is war, it’s a permanent war led by the settler movement under military protection. Benjamin Studebaker, another Palestine-Skeptic, does not seem to convey the full extent of this total war when he uses a Carlinian soft language (as coined by comedian George Carlin) when he describes the Settlers as “migrants” to the West Bank and describes the two-state solution as “ethnic cleansing” against them.

Israelis and Palestinians never knew working-class unity to begin with. Stalin’s insistence on a hasty British withdrawal from Mandate Palestine is a factor behind the origin of the dystopia we are living in today. Arab Marxists counterproductively conformed to the Soviet-promoted 1947 partition plan, while Israeli Marxists and Leftists sought to dovetail with the Haganah military force and the previously pro-Mussolini Lehi paramilitaries (among whom Menachem Begin was a recruit) in their campaign for massive ethnic cleansing. On the Eve of May 15th, 1948, before that nightfall, and after it, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers were displaced, not only from their ancestral homes but from where they worked and from where their labor unions were headquartered.   

Palestinian popular-frontism is a byproduct of the brutality of the Israeli capitalist state, which was founded by Zionist popular-frontism, which in turn originated as a response to the brutality of European anti-semitism and the European Fascist and nationalist states. Any wishful thinking about a Judeo-Arab Kibbutz movement ignores the fact that these mutually hostile conformations proved historically and materially an unstoppable avalanche. Even before the establishment of Israel, Martin Buber’s idea of a Judeo-Arab communal confederation, which formed part of anti-statist and cultural Zionism, made him the subject of marginalization and ridicule by the wider and ethnocentric Zionist community. It is not surprising that Buber, despite his stature as a philosopher, also received scorn from the Left. 

Consequently, it is more anachronistic to imagine there was a possibility, at a stage as late as the 1990s, for some form of Judeo-Arab kibbutz movement to emerge–during a time when both the Israeli state and the neoliberal economy finally consolidated their power. The crux of the problem is not that the Palestinian working class cannot be integrated into Israel. To the contrary, it is the Israeli state that has resisted and rejected integration for itself and its working class into the region on equal terms: why do so when you wield so much military and material power? Why become a comrade when you can be the boss Cutrone is telling us to obey?   

What we can realistically wish for, is to foster efforts of Judeo-Arab fraternization in the Americas, in a context of adequate and advanced social relations, in a country where at least you have a Constitution that applies equally to everyone. But are Palestine-Skeptic Marxists helping to make this fraternization possible? I don’t think so. Their sectarian language is divisive because it keeps slipping into the moralistic un-nuanced solidarity with Israel we saw in the West following October 7th. That sentimentality was another contemporary variant of “popular frontism”. Cutrone’s suggestion that “Arabs should have applied for work in the kibbutz, rather than killing  the kibbutz,” negates the fact that, if Arabs were ever eligible for work alongside Jews in the kibbutzim, this could only have been before 1948. But such affirmations are not intended to produce conversations. Many of Cutrone’s defenders on this issue happen to be pro-war. This is not merely catharsis displacing real politics–this is placebo-politics for those who rather sleep well at night.

The real irony in this school of thought is that it ultimately means capitulation before what Palestine-Skeptic Marxism has sought to avoid in the first place: distraction, and much ado over a strip of land thousands of miles away, dense with identity. Indeed, let’s waste the next four years talking about the priority of how Palestine is not a priority. Here, the efforts to expose the “infantile ultra-left” end up echoing the same ultra-left in all its sectarian preciousness. The repetitive analyses coming from the sidelines, united in condemnation of a DeBordian Spectacle animating the campus protests, amount to another, more solipsistic spectacle. When the critics of performative activism are themselves hostile to nuance and to geopolitical context, what we are left with is farce.

Palestine-skeptic-marxists do not believe in the two-state solution, and that has become a very widespread position on the Left, ironically one that is also shared by many of the campus protesters, as well as by the settlers. But the sense that one has to read these authors several times charitably to find a hidden hint that they actually believe in a one-state solution (which, in practice, slates closer to the Trump-Kushner’s apartheid blueprint for Greater Israel), proves that Palestine-Skeptic Marxist literature is more about sectarian spectacle than about finding solutions. (And since they also would condemn anarchists as infantile, they do not advocate openly for a “no-state solution” unless, of course, applied selectively to the Palestinians). This unseriousness does not challenge the performative quality of the “Ivy-league Intifada” -rather, it complements and even reinforces it.

Indeed, it is easy to forget that both sides of the Marxist in-fighting on Palestine belong to the same class. Those two belligerents are reenacting a historical clash: when Nasser told Khrushchev he wanted to protect Arab sovereignty, and Khrushchev told Nasser he wanted to protect the Arab working class. Both were frontmen of bureaucratic power.

In claiming to speak on behalf of a Palestinian laborer who needs an Israeli boss, the Palestine-Skeptic academics and journalists are not as different as they’d like to think they are from their louder colleagues who claim to represent the Palestinian oppressed “identity”, especially when such “representation” by either party provides legitimizations for the endurance of the illegal settlements and occupation, or admonishes Palestinians to “grow up” accept the “no-state-solution.” There is a resonance here, of the Stalinist apologetics for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the name of the workers.  

Like we said at the beginning of this article, we can and do have all sorts of criticisms of the protestors, without excusing the American state’s crackdown on them. But one common denominator the protesters have amid their ranks, is the phenomenon of Jews who are moving away from the concrete towards the universal. Who, then, is further on the road to socialism? And who is more caught up in identity politics? The young Jewish protesters or the (more often than not Gentile) Zionists discussing which Arab country should take in the Palestinians?