Means and Ends: A Debate on the Left over Hamas’s Strategy

Matías Maiello

November 14, 2023

Support for the self-determination of the Palestinian people does not mean the revolutionary Left should refrain from criticizing the program, strategy, and methods of Hamas.

Israel’s genocidal war against Gaza has led to numerous political and strategic debates on the Left. Here we publish a polemic by our sister organization, the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) of Argentina, directed at the Workers Party (PO). Both the PTS and the PO are part of the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U), which recently received almost 3 percent of votes in the national elections. Despite forming an alliance for more than a decade, both groups debate publicly with each other. This debate, on whether supporters of the Palestinian cause can simultaneously criticize Hamas, is taking place around the world, and we feel this will be useful to readers outside of Argentina too. —Translators

The state of Israel is once again carrying out collective punishment on the Gaza Strip, through aerial bombardment and now a land invasion. After weeks of constant bombardment, Israel has killed more than 10,500 Palestinians, including more than 4,000 children, and displaced hundreds of thousands. In addition to this barrage of war crimes, Israel has cut off electricity, water, and gas to the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip. This massacre is mostly ignored by the imperialist powers and the bourgeois international media, which hypocritically show humanitarian concern in condemning Hamas’s violence. This does not, however, make it any less necessary for the revolutionary Left to discuss and criticize the program, strategy, and methods of Hamas.

In a recent article in Prensa Obrera (PO), Pablo Heller criticizes the PTS for stating that we share neither the methods, program, nor strategy of Hamas.1Translator’s note: The PTS is the Party of Socialist Workers, the sister organization of Left Voice in Argentina. The PO is the Workers Party, which also forms part of the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U). Prensa Obrera is the PO’s newspaper. According to Heller,

It is not enough to condemn Israel as responsible for the bloodbath. Nor is it enough to declare support for the Palestinian cause while adding “buts” to the defense of while Hamas’s action, which is rejected in practice by trying to hide behind irreconcilable differences. 

To top it off, he adds that PTS’s appeals to class independence is a “proclamation of abstention in the class struggle and in international wars.” It is unclear which “Left” Heller is referring to in the article’s title, but it is certainly not a Trotskyist Left.

Of Abstentions and Inconsistencies

In the Argentinian presidential debate, before an audience of millions, Myriam Bregman defended the right of the Palestinian people to confront colonial oppression and the apartheid regime imposed by Israel. Since then, she has been at the center of the mainstream media’s attacks on the leaders of the FIT-U, followed by all kinds of threats, many of them coming from the same right-wing sectors that defend Argentina’s genocidal dictatorship. Later, Nicolás Del Caño did the same in his speech at the Argentinian National Congress.

Heller lambastes Del Caño’s speech for distancing himself from Hamas’s methods, program, and strategy. “Class independence,” Heller argues, “is used as a pretext for not committing to the flesh and blood resistance as it is taking place. Claiming that ‘we support the Palestinian people’ becomes an abstraction because the struggle of the Palestinian people today is largely channeled by the actions of Hamas.”

It is strange that, having said this, Heller does not allude to Romina del Pla’s statements in this regard. In the same congressional session, she said, “We do not share the political orientation of Hamas, which is a clerical and theocratic organization that also supports Erdoğan and has ties with the Iranian regime. But it is clear that Hamas has also been supported by the Zionists when it suited them to remove the PLO because of its secular orientation.” It’s also striking that he does not mention that it was Bregman and Del Caño, in the closing program of the electoral campaign on a pro-Israel channel, who denounced the attacks against the Left. They also expressed support for the Palestinian people, while the PO candidate, who later participated in the program, did not make any mention of it.

Beyond these incongruencies, what is certain is that Heller’s article seems to argue that appealing to class independence while criticizing the strategy, program, and methods of bourgeois or petty bourgeois leadership (in this case Islamist, but it would be the same for the nationalist ones) is equivalent to abstaining from the Palestinian struggle. Under this criterion, Trotsky himself would be considered one of the greatest abstentionists in the history of Marxism.

Adaptation to Bourgeois and Petty Bourgeois Leaderships

As Carl Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, by violent means. Unlike pacifists, revolutionary Marxists distinguish between just and unjust wars. The war of a people rising up against colonial oppression clearly falls into the category of just wars, which is why we as revolutionaries place ourselves unconditionally in the military camp of the resistance and struggle of the Palestinian people against the state of Israel, regardless of their leadership. At the same time, we do not give any political support to theocratic bourgeois leaderships such as Hamas, nor to nationalist ones such as the PLO.

From the point of view of revolutionary Marxism, we can distinguish between two types of abstentionism in the face of a just war. The first is abstentionism from the war itself on the part of those who pretend to remain neutral and don’t place themselves clearly in the military camp of the oppressed people. This is equivalent to abandoning anti-imperialism and, therefore, the socialist revolution.

The other is the abstentionism of those who, in the framework of the war, shy away from disagreements of programs, strategies, and methods in the face of the bourgeois or petty bourgeois leaderships that circumstantially lead the oppressed side. Thus, this relegates the strategic interests of the working class and the social revolution, both on a national and international scale, to these leaderships. The PO’s position is dangerously close to the latter.

Trotsky elaborated a whole theory-program on this — the theory of permanent revolution — which sought to overcome formulas of the Communist International, such as the “anti-imperialist united front,” which left open the possibility of alliances with the national bourgeoisies of colonial and semicolonial countries. It was not merely a whim of Trotsky but a historical observation that these bourgeoisies could not consistently fight imperialism to conquer “fully and effectively” democratic demands, such as national liberation.

Hence, this distinction between putting ourselves in the military camp of the oppressed people must go hand in hand with what for Heller is a “pretext,” namely: political independence and the rejection of any political support to bourgeois, petty bourgeois, or bureaucratic leaderships. For example, in the face of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Trotsky put it this way: “In participating in the legitimate and progressive national war against Japanese invasion, the working class organizations must preserve their entire political independence of the [bourgeois nationalist] Chiang Kai-shek government.” It is not very difficult to see the contrast between these types of positions and those of the PO.

Once again, the PO is following the type of policy that Michel Pablo’s current in the Fourth International held during the last century: to follow the existing leaderships of the mass movement, even if they were bourgeois, to align itself politically in a “camp,” and to leave aside the struggle for a revolutionary workers’ program. Thus, for example, Michel Pablo adapted to the National Liberation Front in Algeria by becoming an adviser to its main leader, Ben Bella, and joining his government.

Along this line, the PO dismisses “what the PTS calls class independence” as abstentionism and argues, “In opposition to this orientation, we support to the death the armed struggle of Hezbollah and Hamas, and all the organizations of the Palestinian and Middle East resistance against the Zionist aggressor.” But Heller goes on to clarify, “with our program, that is, intervening to serve the international socialist revolution.” He thus salutes the red flag, but it remains unclear what this means vis-à-vis Hamas’s program, strategy, and methods.

Means and Ends

According to the PO, it is not enough to declare support for the Palestinian cause; we must politically support Hamas. We must support its attack on October 7 and stop discussing disagreements with its methods, because “the oppressed” are justified in using “all the means at their disposal.” In other words, the ends justify the means. Heller then backtracks and says, “The point-blank shooting of civilians at a music festival is harmful to the Palestinian cause because it alienates the workers, who must be won over.” But this does not change the essence of his approach: the almost total disregard for the interconnectedness between ends and means.

The aphorism that “the ends justify the means” was once attributed to Bolshevism by its detractors. In response, Trotsky took it upon himself to criticize it in Their Morals and Ours. He correctly argued that the means can be justified only by the ends, but the ends, in turn, must also be justified. The aim of Hamas is to set up an Iranian-style theocratic state — which in Iran itself was constituted by liquidating the vanguard of the 1979 revolution, the shoras (councils), and the Kurdish struggle — for anyone who claims to be a revolutionary Marxist, this is not historically justified. Thus, it is a reactionary program.

From the point of view of Marxism, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it entails liberating humanity. This end can be achieved only by revolutionary means. So, are all means permitted for the purposes of class struggle against capitalism and against imperialism? Trotsky’s answer is no:

Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the “leaders.” Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers.

Of course, these are general criteria that do not tell us what is admissible or inadmissible in every situation. These problems are intertwined with those of revolutionary strategy and tactics. In the case at hand, our differences with Hamas are in both the ends and the means. Even though the Hamas leadership was elected and clearly has a broad popular base, we reject the authoritarian methods with which they govern by systematically repressing mobilizations that escape its control (whether against corruption, inequality, the clientelistic distribution of humanitarian aid or local workers’ strikes). While opposing the Zionist occupation, Hamas aims to subordinate the Palestinian workers to the local and regional Muslim bourgeoisies.

Specifically regarding the action of October 7, part of it was directed against military targets such as checkpoints, IDF positions, barracks, capture of Israeli military, etc. But other parts of the operation involved killing hundreds of young people who were at a rave, families living in kibbutzim, and many other noncombatants.

As is the rule in any war, information is part of the battle. Thus, since the beginning of the conflict, the entire international hegemonic media apparatus has been bombarded with “fake news.” Among the most widespread are videos of children in cages or news of decapitated babies. In this information war, the state of Israel even denied responsibility for the bombing of the Al-Ahli Arabi hospital, which killed some 500 people. Far from being an isolated incident, it is only one among 115 attacks on healthcare facilities carried out by Netanyahu since the beginning of the conflict.

Regarding the attack on the kibbutz in Beeri, an interview with one of the Israeli survivors was circulated and later censored. The interviewee stated that the many civilian deaths of those taken hostage were not the result of executions, as claimed by the international bourgeois press, but of crossfire, and that the Israeli forces fired indiscriminately, killing both Hamas combatants and Israeli hostages. For its part, Hamas had instructed its troops not to kill civilians, according to statements by Saleh Al-Arouri of the Hamas leadership, but other armed groups used the collapse of the Israeli defense to do so. The underlying question, however, is what, from the point of view of the Palestinian cause, would justify attacking a music festival? The answer is none. On the contrary, such an attack is detrimental to the Palestinian cause, which is why it is fundamental to distance ourselves from these methods, which have nothing to do with those of the proletariat.

Heller hastens to justify himself by warning that we must take a concrete approach to what happened, yet that is exactly what he does not do. He reminds us that hostage-taking is a common method that has occurred historically in revolutionary struggles, for example in the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. But it is one thing to take hostage the archbishop of Paris, the priests, and the gendarmes during the Commune; it is quite another to take hostages from a music festival, where many of the participants were young pacifists who were not enemies of the Palestinian cause.

This was reflected in the funerals of some of the young men killed there, where several of their families came out to demand that Netanyahu not use their grief to justify the massacre of the Palestinian people. The sibling of one of the young men said, “I have no doubt that even in the face of Hamas people that murdered him … he would still speak out against the killing and violence of innocent people.” It is essential to separate oneself from these methods, which only alienate those who sympathize with the Palestinian cause and build support among the Israeli population, support that Netanyahu, who has been protested on a large scale in Israel itself, is betting.

The Strategy and Program of Revolutionary Marxism

The state of Israel is a colonial state whose existence, as demonstrated, among others, by Ilan Pappé, is based on the expulsion of the Arab population by methods of ethnic cleansing. The current IDF offensive intends to redouble this by provoking a new Nakba of the Palestinian people. But the liberation of Palestine will not come from theocratic bourgeois leaderships like Hamas, nor from nationalist ones like the PLO. In contrast to the PO, we place ourselves in the camp of the Palestinian resistance, but for us this goes hand in hand with criticizing the programs, strategies, and methods of Palestinian leaders.

The “pabloism” that the PO now boasts has always consisted of advising the leadership of the progressive “camp.” In our case, we resolutely support the triumph of the Palestinian people’s struggle, regardless of its current leadership, as this would be a very important tactical victory. But we are also aware that a political triumph under the bourgeois leadership of Hamas implies the establishment of a theocratic state. We fight for the full and effective realization of the right to national self-determination of the Palestinian people and for the only truly progressive strategic solution, which is a workers’ and socialist Palestine. Only a state that aims to end all oppression and exploitation can guarantee the democratic and peaceful coexistence of Arabs and Jews, as a first step toward a socialist federation in the Middle East.

With these aims, we differentiate ourselves from the methods of Hamas. Gazans could unite with the thousands who have been mobilizing since the beginning of the year in the West Bank against the Israeli occupation and against the Palestinian Authority, with the Arab workers of Israel and Israeli workers who break with Zionism. This unity will fight using the methods of the working class, such as the general strike, combined with the intifada and the development of self-defense organizations that can unite all those sectors. We do not hide our program and our strategy, as the PO believes; we are convinced that we must fight for this perspective.

The PO’s position is that criticizing the actually existing leadership of the mass movement, in the framework of a confrontation, implies playing into the enemy’s hands. Heller takes this position to say, with this same logic, that our unconditional support to the piquetero movement requires us to be silent on our criticisms of its leadership. (As is publicly known, the PTS opposed the Left that claims to be revolutionary but organizes collateral to manage the administration of the state’s social plans, an issue we have recently debated here.) If we add to this the PO’s new project of a “popular movement with socialist banners,” with which it seems to abdicate the construction of an internationalist revolutionary workers’ party, then we can conclude that this is not Trotskyism. Perhaps it could be labeled a populist Left, which at the very least is not our program.

We have to develop the broadest national and international mobilization in support of the Palestinian people for an end to the bombings and the Israeli military intervention. Redoubling our efforts in this regard is and must be the framework of the debate.

Addendum on Política Obrera

Jorge Altamira’s Política Obrera2Translator’s note: Politica Obrera is a group founded in 2019 by Jorge Altamira, who was the founder and main leader of the PO for several decades. Altamira and his supporters were expelled from the PO in 2019. We published an analysis of the split in English: “Which Way Forward for the Trotskyist Left?” has also come out to criticize the PTS and the FT-CI, an international organization of which it is a member, from the same angle as the Partido Obrero, only radicalizing the position to the point of absurdity. Política Obrera states, “As for the murdered people who had ‘no military function,’ [the FT] hides — as does also the entire Zionist and pro-Zionist press — that the separation between people with or without ‘military functions’ is by no means clear inside the Zionist state, with its hundreds of thousands of reservists and armed civilians, including its kibbutzim.” This suggests that the FT has become like an NGO reproducing imperialist propaganda by rejecting this kind of “final solution” suggested in Marcelo Ramal’s3Translator’s note: Marcelo Ramal was a leading member of the PO and is now a leader of Politica Obrera. article and daring to criticize Hamas’s methods.

In reality, Política Obrera places itself outside Trotskyism. A historical parallel with the policy of Ramal’s article is the slogan of the French resistance raised by the Stalinist Communist Party of France (PCF) during the Nazi occupation: “À chacun son boche” (to each his own German), meaning a call for everyone to kill a German soldier. Thus, the PCF encouraged petty bourgeois methods of indiscriminate individual assassinations of Germans, bombings, etc. This violently nationalist policy was the fruit of the agreement with De Gaulle, whom it considered part of the national front for the independence of France.

The Trotskyists, at that time, opposed this nationalist policy against the soldiers of the Nazi army. They stated that,

The development in a proletarian and anti-capitalist direction of the popular movement of hostility to Hitlerism is the necessary condition for a fraternization with the soldiers and workers of Germany. The Party does not forget that without the collaboration of German workers and soldiers, no revolution would be possible in Europe. Thus, fraternization remains one of our essential tasks. Any act which widens the breach between German and European workers is directly counter-revolutionary.

It is easy to see the contrast with the program proposed by Política Obrera. Ramal absurdly states that the FT’s objective is to fight for an “Israeli workers’ state.” According to Ramal, “The FT completely mischaracterizes the concrete situation, as the workers of Israel are not internationalists, they are Zionists. It is not the action of Hamas that distances them from the Palestinian national struggle — it is their Zionism, that is, the nationalism of the oppressor state.” They conclude that “the FT advocates class collaboration with Zionism under the guise of the working class of Israel, i.e. Zionism.”

Israel’s working class was and is overwhelmingly Zionist, historically a major factor in the colonization and apartheid regime. In fact, as early as the 1930s, the Histadrut (Zionist labor center) expelled communist militants who sought to organize unions with Arabs. The Histadrut promoted the replacement of Arab workers with Jewish workers and was characterized by a racist and pro-employer policy. Class collaboration with the bourgeoisie regarding Zionism is strong and has deep roots.

Unlike Política Obrera, we are not idealists of the working class in general. The class collaboration regarding Zionism is an extreme case of phenomena that have traversed the working class in its history; the imperialist epoch is full of examples of this. One is the German working class, with its powerful trade unions and social democracy, supporting the imperialist war in 1914, along with most of the parties of the Second International.

Another is the racism of white American workers, which Trotsky closely confronted in his time. He responded to this problem by stating that, “99.9 percent of the American workers are chauvinists, in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese. It is necessary to teach the American beasts. It is necessary to make them understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state.” In this way, he sought to convince the racist white workers that they should fight in the struggle to guarantee full democratic rights to Black people.

That is to say, Trotsky was not resigned to consider the American white working class as lost. Something similar could be said of Israel’s Jewish working class. Zionism has deeply penetrated Israeli workers. Despite how difficult it can be for the working class to overcome it, we must fight for Israeli workers to break with Zionism and to join in solidarity with the Israeli Arab workers, and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Fighting to this end is not a “disguise” to give in to Zionism. It is called Trotskyism, but in its feverish “Pabloism” to align itself with the “actually existing” leaderships, Política Obrera seems to have forgotten it.


1 Translator’s note: The PTS is the Party of Socialist Workers, the sister organization of Left Voice in Argentina. The PO is the Workers Party, which also forms part of the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U). Prensa Obrera is the PO’s newspaper.
2 Translator’s note: Politica Obrera is a group founded in 2019 by Jorge Altamira, who was the founder and main leader of the PO for several decades. Altamira and his supporters were expelled from the PO in 2019. We published an analysis of the split in English: “Which Way Forward for the Trotskyist Left?”
3 Translator’s note: Marcelo Ramal was a leading member of the PO and is now a leader of Politica Obrera.
Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).