Palestinian Liberation and Permanent Revolution

Jimena Vergara

April 19, 2024

The fight against Zionist oppression is at the center of international and domestic politics. The path forward is to fight for a free, socialist, workers’ Palestine, from the river to the sea, where Arabs and Jews can live in peace.

Collectively determining the course of the struggle for Palestinian liberation is a vital task both for the Arab masses in Gaza and in the region, as well as for the global movement against the genocide that has blossomed even in several imperialist countries, particularly in the United States.

A necessary part of this undertaking is to understand the enormous social forces at play in Palestine that have turned this region of the Arab world into an epicenter of global crisis — the renewed crisis of global imperialism. The tragedy of Israel’s brutal colonial project in Palestine is, on the one hand, the expression of the bloodiest consequences of imperialist decline; and on the other, from below, it has become a rallying cry for all the exploited and oppressed across the world who see themselves represented in the heroic resistance of the Palestinian masses against imperialism, racism, and colonialism. The state of Israel represents the monstrous international Far Right that is the enemy of the working class and oppressed everywhere, from Argentina to the United States. In this framework, Palestinian liberation is in the interest of the billions of people who are exploited and oppressed in every corner of the world. 

Finding a victorious path toward Palestinian emancipation requires understanding how these colossal social forces — international, regional, and local — collide and what class dynamics are expressed in the context of the genocide in Gaza. With this, we can build a strategy for liberation that can identify friend from foe, bridging the urgent self-determination of the Palestinian people with socialist revolution in the region. Such a strategy would promote the unity of the masses throughout the Middle East in throwing off the yoke of imperialism and the shackles of their own bourgeoisies and authoritarian governments, and would push sectors of the Israeli proletariat to break with Zionism and Israel’s colonial agenda.

In our view, this connection — that between the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and the struggle for socialism in the region — is unequivocally inscribed in Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. It was perhaps the Palestinian Trotskyist Jabra Nicola who most systematically applied the theory to the fight for the liberation of Palestine, characterizing the Zionist state of Israel from a class and anti-imperialist perspective and analyzing regional class dynamics to show the revolutionary potential of the Arab proletariat of the surrounding region.

As historian Josefina L. Martínez writes:

In his time, Trotsky noted that the theory of Permanent Revolution brought together three sets of ideas. First, the transition from democratic revolution to socialist revolution. Second, the revolution as such, that is, the period of transition between capitalism and socialism, which entails “revolutions in economy, technique, science, the family, morals and everyday life [that] develop in complex reciprocal action and do not allow society to achieve equilibrium.” Finally, the third aspect is the international character of the socialist revolution. And it is precisely the interaction of these three dimensions that give this theory enormous relevance today.

In the present article we aim to demonstrate the validity and relevance of this series of ideas in order to elaborate a strategic perspective for Palestinian liberation, relying on the elaborations of Leon Trotsky, Jabra Nicola, and historians such as Ilan Pappé, Ussama Makdisi, Ran Greenstein, Zachary Lockman, Gabriel Godorezky, and Pierre Broué. We will not repeat the fundamentals of the theory of Permanent Revolution as dogma but instead attempt to set them in motion in light of the recent history and current situation in Palestine against the backdrop of a crisis of world imperialism. We will do so using the three ideas that form the core of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, using them to navigate fundamental moments in Palestinian history and to recover the history of the ideas and program of the revolutionary Left; we contrast this to the ideas put forward by the leaderships of the movement for Palestinian liberation, who have overwhelmingly refused to envision a socialist future for Palestine in particular, and the Arab proletariat in general.

Palestine Was Not an Empty Land

As Israeli historian Ilan Pappé explains, Palestine was anything but empty before the 1948 Nakba:

Palestine was a flourishing part of Bilad al-Sham (the land of the north), or the Levant of its time. At the same time, a rich agricultural industry, small towns and historical cities served a population of half a million people on the eve of the Zionist arrival.1Pappé, Ilan. Ten Myths About Israel. Verso Books, 2017.

By the end of the 19th century, Palestine’s not inconsiderable population included a small percentage of Jews. The vast majority of Palestinians, as in many other countries of what is now often called the “Global South,” were peasants organized in villages of up to 1,000 inhabitants. The nascent cities attracted educated elites who tended to settle on the coast and in the highlands while imperialist penetration was slowly forging a nascent and developing Palestinian proletariat in the cities at the start of the 20th century.

Pappé cites historical archives of the Ottoman Empire to give a snapshot of the composition of Palestinian society in the 19th century:

The exact percentage of Jews prior to the rise of Zionism is unknown. However, it probably ranged from 2 to 5 percent. According to Ottoman records, a total population of 462,465 resided in 1878 in what is today Israel/ Palestine. Of this number, 403,795 (87 percent) were Muslim, 43,659 (10 percent) were Christians and 15,011 (3 percent) were Jewish.

Before the British Mandate for Palestine was imposed in the aftermath of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was moving towards a more explicitly racist conception of its own domination and of the Empire itself; in the mid to late 19th century, it advanced the notion that being Turkish could be equated with “Ottomanism,” leading affluent and educated elites in Palestine to question their own national identity and political affiliations.

As historian Ussama Makdisi demonstrates in “Ottoman Orientalism,” the intelligentsia, in service of the Ottoman Empire, developed a system of racial hierarchy to differentiate Turkish members of the empire from other ethnic groups, including Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

In this context nationalist sentiments were spreading throughout Palestine and the rest of the Middle East, fueled also by a powerful concept that was reshaping geopolitics under the thrust of bourgeois revolutions and the reorganization of former colonies: the nation.

During WWI, the British encouraged the struggles of peoples in the Middle East against the oppression of the Ottoman Empire in order to weaken Ottoman influence in the region and secure better positions for British imperialism. Part of this policy was to make promises to Arab peoples that they would gain self-determination after throwing off the control of the Ottoman Empire; this stoked nationalist sentiments across the region. Meanwhile, Britain was negotiating a secret deal with France and other world powers for how to carve up the Ottoman Empire after the war, bringing the people of the region under the control of new imperialist oppressors.

These incipient ideas of national self-determination could not develop or materialize because, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British took control of Palestine at a time when England — the most prominent imperial power after France — dominated the politics of the region. Both England and France, in addition to having strategic interests in Palestine, already had strong ties to the Zionist forces of their own countries.

The initial imperialist intervention in the first three decades of the 20th century was instrumental in shaping a complex social structure in Palestine. Historian Enzo Dal Fitto, drawing on the work of Palestinian Trotskyist Jabra Nicola, describes these dynamics:

Between 1917 and 1939, the conditions of economic development were profoundly impacted by the development of the Zionist sector economy in the Palestinian Mandate, thus destroying Arab feudalism and preventing the development of a capitalist bourgeoisie, at the cost of stagnation of historical development and a depletion of the historical vitality of anti-imperialist forces.

In 1917, before England took control of Palestinian territory, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote an official letter to English Zionist leader Lord Walter Rotshchild declaring the British government’s support for the occupation of Palestine by the Jewish Diaspora.

In 1918, the British government renegotiated the borders of the region with international powers and the League of Nations, creating a more clearly-defined geographical space to suit their ends; in the process, British imperialism was forced to question who should rule Palestine: native Palestinians, or the new Jewish settlers? In this way, according to Pappé, it was the British who, by reshaping the borders of Palestine, helped the Zionists to geographically conceptualize Eretz Israel — “the Land of Israel” — in which only Jews would be entitled to the land and its resources.

What emerges clearly from this narrative is that, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Palestine was not an empty land, as official Israeli history claims. Palestine was instead a land in dispute — a historical dispute whose central agents were the old colonial powers with renewed imperialist aspirations and who were trying to remake the world in their image as they struggled against the sword of Damocles in the form of new emerging world powers. World War I was a bloody dress rehearsal for World War II, the next stage in this process of “reorganization.”

The colonization of Palestine proposed by the Zionists was intentionally instrumentalized and materially supported by British imperialism. And while Britain itself was an empire in decline, the strategic importance of the region was key to the development of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

British control of Palestine was formalized by the League of Nations in 1923 as part of the partition of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. This was met with strong resistance from Palestinians, and this resistance blossomed and was fortified in the fight against British oppression during the years of its occupation, particularly between 1929 and 1939. The peak of this rebellion was embodied in the general strike of 1936, which was led by the Arab working class and demanded improved working conditions and national independence.

During this period of intense class struggle known as “the Great Revolt” from 1936 to 1939, the peasant masses also played a role in the countryside. They organized against the increasing encroachment of Jewish settlers and the British. As historian Zachary Lockman recounts in Comrades and Enemies:

On April 15, 1936, members of the guerrilla band founded by Shaykh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam held up cars and buses near Nablus, killing two Jewish passengers. Two days later a right-wing Jewish paramilitary group retaliated by killing two Arabs. Arab protests soon erupted throughout the country, gradually taking on the character of a broad-based anti-colonial and anti-Zionist popular uprising. To contain the violence and channel the upsurge from below, Arab nationalist activists quickly called for a countrywide general strike. The strike spread rapidly, as did new “national committees” which sprang up to lead the struggle in all the major towns. Taken by surprise, the elite politicians tried to catch up with and ride the wave of popular energy by endorsing the strike call and forming a new Arab Higher Committee (AHC) on which all the major parties were represented, with Amin al-Husayni as its president. The general strike would continue for six months, until October 1936, making it one of the longest general strikes in history. It constituted the first stage of a countrywide Arab nationalist revolt against both British rule and Zionism which would end only in the summer of 1939.

The participation of the Palestinian proletariat in the Great Revolt is perhaps one of the most combative chapters in the history of the labor movement in the region. As Lockman writes:

Most segments of Palestine’s urban Arab population participated in the general strike, with urban workers playing a key role. Hasan Sidqi al-Dajani’s drivers’ union paralyzed Arab motor transport and the Jaffa port workers shut down Jaffa harbor. To sustain the strike, the national committees collected donations from wealthy Palestinians and from sympathizers in neighboring countries, and distributed strike pay to those idled by the strike, including the Jaffa dockworkers.

The revolt was defeated by repression and by the conscious action of the Jewish trade union leadership headed by the Histadrut (Israel’s largest union federation, founded in 1920 with the British Mandate), which worked in the interest of Zionism and defended the occupation.

Meanwhile, wealthy and influential Palestinian families (who were formerly large landowners) took control of the revolt and established themselves as the leadership of the movement and played a conciliatory role with the occupying forces; although they had lost their lands to the British and Zionist settlers, they received considerable payments and enormous benefits from Zionist sectors and now formed the wealthy classes of the colonial system. These families once managed the region in the decades under Ottoman rule and continued to work on behalf of occupying forces when the British took control after WWI. Completely detached from the suffering of the Palestinian masses, these families were primarily politically aligned with the Arab-Palestinian Party headed by Abd al-Zadir al-Husayni. As Enzo Dal Fitto writes about the Palestinian leadership of the Great Revolt:

Because their wealth depended on the Zionist occupation, their opposition was only superficial and they delayed the emergence of an Arab anti-Zionist consciousness and were slow to denounce the Balfour Declaration. Overwhelmed by the Al-Qassam resistance and by the echoes of the great Syrian general strike that inspired and fortified future Arab resistance, they involved themselves in the “Great Revolt” of 1936: a massive strike movement developed, accompanied by acts of civil disobedience (such as tax strikes) and the formation of insurrectionary popular militias. However, the movement was decapitated by British colonial forces supported by Zionist militias; meanwhile, Jewish immigration increased, due to the growing virulence of European fascism, Hitler’s rise to power, and the numerous pogroms in Eastern Europe and the assertion of an organic European antisemitism. Consequently, the closure of the Arab economy allowed the economy of the Zionist sector to strengthen and extend its influence while being supported by the increasingly massive influx of Jewish capital from Europe.

In response to the uprising, the British set up the Peel Commission with a concrete task: to recommend partitioning the region into an Arab state and a Jewish state with the aim of preventing at all costs class struggle from unifying the Arab and Jewish proletarians against British imperialism and Zionism.

With World War II looming, British policies were influenced by the desire to gain greater control of the region through new Jewish settlers and the possible establishment of a Jewish state, as well as avoiding an Arab uprising on the eve of world conflagration when Britain needed the support of regional governments.

The fate of Palestine was already sealed by the start of WWII, a war which would ultimately define — in the face of the defeat of international socialist revolution — the form and character of its new oppressor.

The Palestinian Communist Movement

The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused the international communist movement to grow exponentially, attracting hundreds of thousands of workers and radicalized youth to the ideas of international revolution and nurturing hundreds of new communist parties. In 1919, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the Third International (known as the Communist International) was founded.

In 1920, the Third International — whose leaders included Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky — took up anti-colonial and national liberation struggles across the world with the utmost gravity and diligence. In his 1920 “Theses on the National and Colonial Question,” Lenin declared the need for Communist parties throughout the world to “support the revolutionary movement [in the colonies] in general, both materially and morally.” According to Lenin, this active support for national liberation movements should combine a struggle “against the reactionary and medieval influence of the clergy, the Christian missions, and similar elements,” as well as against “Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen local reactionary forces.”

In 1920, the Bolsheviks organized the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Azerbaijan in the framework of the second congress of the Communist International; it drew 2850 delegates from across Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, India, and other countries of Asia and the Middle East. Although the minutes of that congress are not available, the research of historian Pierre Broué reveals that one of the resolutions of that meeting was to call on “the peoples of the East to fight for their liberation alongside the Red Army, which will enter into an anti-colonial struggle against French, British, American imperialism.”2Broué, Pierre. Histoire de l’Internationale communiste (1919-1943). Éditions Fayard. 1997

The congress declared that British imperialism acted in the interest of Zionist capitalists, dividing Arabs and Jews:

[Britain] drove Arabs from the land in order to give the latter to Jewish settlers; then, trying to appease the discontent of the Arabs, it incited them against these same Jewish settlers, sowing discord, enmity and hatred between all the communities, weakening both [sic] in order that it may itself rule and command.

As historian Ran Greenstein explains, the general position of the Congress was to unconditionally oppose British rule over Palestine, condemn Zionism, and denounce the Arab and Jewish forces collaborating with imperialism. The Congress of the Peoples of the East served as a jumping off point for the foundation of new communist parties in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, India, and Palestine.

The Palestinian Communist Party was founded in 1924 by primarily Jewish anti-Zionist activists and intellectuals whose strategic orientation — based on the first three congresses of the Communist International — was to work against British imperialism and Zionism, and to fight for the unity of Arab and Jewish workers. This policy was increasingly against the current in a context in which the tensions of the Zionist occupation were beginning to have an effect on the mood of the Arab masses and the Palestinian nationalist leaderships were beginning to have an increasingly hostile attitude towards Jewish workers and intellectuals.

Although the party had at its disposal the political arsenal of the Third International with respect to the colonial question and the Palestinian question in general, the reality is that the problems of Palestinian liberation under the yoke of British imperialism and growing Zionist colonization posed new and significant theoretical problems for revolutionary Marxism. The orientation of the new party was immature, on the one hand, and on the other the party was indirectly feeling the effects of the internal political struggle during the 1920s between the Left Opposition and the increasingly strong Soviet bureaucracy headed by Stalin.

From the start, the party held important influence among a sector of radicalized Jewish youth, but had little presence among the Palestinian Arab masses. The party began a tortuous process of “Arabization” towards the end of the 1920s, a policy pushed for by the Communist International, which was embroiled in the process of Stalinization.

At the time, as Greenstein explains, the party’s Jewish anti-Zionist militants tended to adapt to the pro-Zionist prejudices of the Jewish periphery of the organization; while they rhetorically rejected Zionism, they increasingly defended Jewish settlements known as Yishuv as legitimate communities which “could continue to grow due to immigration” while at the same time opposing the British Mandate. This was in the context of one of the most important waves of Jewish migration to Palestine before the Nakba, made up of thousands of Jews fleeing growing antisemitism in Europe under the auspices of England and the Zionist bourgeoisie who maintained their own colonial agenda. Many of them fled to Israel as the result of brutal quotas on Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe and as a result of the policies of the great world powers; the United States, for example, prevented hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from entering the country, pressuring them to take refuge in Palestine.

At the same time, throughout the region, there was growing unrest among the Arab peasant masses and in Palestine in particular. Spontaneous revolts began to take place in various rural communities against Jewish colonization.

The so-called “Arabization” of the party could have had a revolutionary perspective that would lead revolutionaries to gain influence in the Arab vanguard, especially the sector revolting in the countryside; instead, it ultimately served as an extension of the “anti-imperialist united front” policy developed by Stalinism during the Chinese Revolution of 1927. This policy had catastrophic consequences across the world — including in Palestine — creating political alliances with the bourgeois or petty bourgeois leaderships that purported to confront imperialist forces in their countries.

The theoretical background of this policy is grounded in Joseph Stalin’s conception of national liberation struggles; directly contradicting the principles on which the Third International was founded, it became hegemonic among the Communist International as the Soviet Union underwent a process of bureaucratization.

For Stalin, the struggle for national liberation in the colonies had a bourgeois character that could only be realized within the framework of the capitalist state and bourgeois democracy as we know it today; it was completely separate from the question of socialist revolution, just as any social democrat would think of national liberation today.

Using this logic, the struggle for national liberation can only culminate in the creation of a new capitalist nation-state. Consequently, it is a sector of the national bourgeoisie that leads these struggles; in the absence of such a force, a petty bourgeois leadership with a program that does not disrupt capitalist relations may lead this process. In this context, Stalin’s motivation for the “Arabization” of the party was not to win greater organic influence among the Arab masses in order to lead the region toward socialist revolution, but to make opportunist agreements with Arab nationalist leaderships and the “anti-imperialist” Arab states in order to fortify its position in the world order.

Overall, in the period from 1924 to 1930, the young Palestinian Communist Party yielded to the nationalist pressures of the Arab leaderships against both British and increasingly Zionist domination on the one hand, and the incipient nationalist sentiments of the youth and radicalized Jewish intelligentsia that did not fully break with Zionism on the other.

In 1929 the tensions created by colonial domination and growing Zionist migration erupted into clashes throughout the country as a prologue to the great workers’ actions and the “Great Revolt” mentioned above.

Ran Greenfield describes how these differences were further consolidated under the pressure of class struggle and growing unrest among the Arab population:

[T]he Party was forced to shift its orientation towards the Arab population. The growing national conflict in the country, in particular the Arab Revolt of 1936- 39, gave rise to tensions among members, leading to the formation of an autonomous “Jewish section” in 1937. With the end of the Revolt, the outbreak of the World War, and the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in 1941, the [Soviet Union] moved in an opposite direction, towards recognizing Jewish rights in the country. This alienated Arab intellectuals and activists who had moved closer to the Party during the 1930s, when it sided with the Arab national struggle. Nationalist tensions were reflected within the Party, under conditions “where the Party was talking to each community in its own political language and appealing to it in terms of its national sentiments.”

Ultimately, this apparent “shift” in Stalinist policy would result in full support for the colonization of Palestine by Zionist settlers. In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to create the state of Israel with the enthusiastic support of the Soviet Union and British and U.S. imperialism.

How did the Stalinist bureaucracy go from recommending the “Arabization” of the Palestinian Communist Party and uncritically supporting Arab nationalist leaderships to making a pact with the great imperialist powers for the large-scale colonization of Palestine? As historian Gabriel Gorodetsky puts it:

The Soviet stand is particularly striking considering the consistent negative attitude of the regime to Zionism, and the overt pro-Arab line taken by the Kremlin during the Arab riots of 1929 and 1936, denouncing the Yishuv as the ally and tool of British imperialism. The shift in the Soviet attitude, from blatant antagonism towards Zionism to an effusive support, is often associated with the German attack of the Soviet Union on 21 June 1941. It is argued that the ties, established by Moscow with both world Jewry and the Yishuv in Palestine, reflected in the first place the need to enlist the support of the world Jewish community to the Russian war effort. The war, it is suggested, provided the Russians with new opportunities to “find a way to extensive circles in the Western world in order to gain maximum support for its struggle against Nazi Germany.”

Faced with the dynamics of WWII — in which Hitler broke the pact he signed with Stalin — the bureaucratized Communist International made a 180 degree turn on the question of national liberation, claiming it was justified in the name of “defending the Soviet Union”; in practice what this amounted to was making a pact with imperialism for the security of its zone of influence in exchange for curtailing the extension of international socialist revolution. Stalin gave this policy theoretical cover with his conception of “socialism in one country,” which was the direct negation of proletarian internationalism, because it implies — and indeed resulted in — the betrayal of the struggles of oppressed peoples in exchange for furthering the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. In a nutshell, the Stalinist Soviet Union applied in its policy toward Palestine a logic that fundamentally and historically rejected socialist revolution as the path for national liberation, supplanting it with the pursuit of the “anti-imperialist united front” which is nothing more than a policy of class conciliation; this was clear in Stalinism’s orientation toward agreements with the bourgeoisie of the Arab states.

Palestinian Oppression as the Product of World Imperialism

Imperialism is an epoch of capitalism that organizes and governs the contemporary world order where power (economic, political, military, and ideological) is vested and concentrated in the hands of corporations represented and defended by their imperialist nation-states; the result is the exploitation of people, land, and nature within national borders and extends to the rest of the world, all in the service of profit and the reproduction of capital. As Esteban Mercatante writes in his article “Imperialism in Times of World Disorder”:

Competition and conflict — potential or actual — between imperialist countries, and the plundering of the planet by transnational corporations and global finance capital are two dimensions that, far from being opposed or separated, must be approached together as part of an understanding of contemporary imperialism. We believe that both dimensions must be thought of jointly in order to elaborate a theory of imperialism that accounts for how the world economy today is shaped as a hierarchical totality, as a result of the articulated action of global capital and the most powerful states.

Imperialism is not a set of policies but an epoch. This is an important distinction because it means that imperialism is historically determined and emerged as a consequence of processes in development, or in their becoming. We take this definition from Lenin, the leader of the Russian Bolshevik party and the Russian Revolution. This historical period began at the start of the 20th century; it represents a reactionary epoch of capitalism in the sense that capitalism in this stage has nothing else to offer but crises, wars, and revolutions.

WWI was the first great expression of the tensions produced by the basic characteristics of imperialism, namely the fusion of industrial and banking capital into finance capital; the compulsive need for the constant export of capital; and the division of countries of unequal political and economic strength into imperialist countries on one hand — like the United States, England, Germany, or France — and colonies and semi-colonies that are plundered by imperialist corporations and oppressed by imperialist governments in multiple ways — such as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Algeria, or Syria — on the other.

In many ways, WWII was a continuation of WWI. While England lost its hegemonic global influence, other imperialist countries attempted to emerge as a new hegemon to take its place, among them the United States and Nazi Germany.

Official history has always sought to present WWII as a confrontation between democracy and fascism, human rights and Nazism, but in reality it was a worldwide slaughter perpetrated by the world’s major powers to facilitate the emergence of a new world order, to reorganize markets, and to discipline the international working class with the power of mass destruction. Trotsky, paying homage to Lenin in “Lenin on Imperialism” defined imperialism as follows:

Imperialism camouflages its own peculiar aims – seizure of colonies, markets, sources of raw material, spheres of influence – with such ideas as “safeguarding peace against the aggressors,” “defense of the fatherland,” “defense of democracy,” etc. These ideas are false through and through. It is the duty of every socialist not to support them but, on the contrary, to unmask them before the people. “The question of which group delivered the first military blow or first declared war,” wrote Lenin in March 1915, “has no importance whatsoever in determining the tactics of socialists. Phrases about the defense of the fatherland, repelling invasion by the enemy, conducting a defensive war, etc., are on both sides a complete deception of the people.” “For decades,” explained Lenin, “three bandits (the bourgeoisie and governments of England, Russia, and France) armed themselves to despoil Germany. Is it surprising that the two bandits (Germany and Austria-Hungary) launched an attack before the three bandits succeeded in obtaining the new knives they had ordered?”

As is well known, at the end of WWII in August 1945 — the same month and year that the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and with the stroke of a pen murdered 226,000 people with the atomic bomb — President Truman called for the admission of 100,000 Holocaust survivors into Palestine. This was a clear signal that in the aftermath of WWII, U.S. imperialism would take up the task left by the declining British empire and redouble the project of creating a Jewish state.

In 1947, the United Nations allocated 56 percent of Palestinian lands for the proposed Zionist state, despite the fact that Jews owned only about 7 percent of private lands in Palestine. The Nakba — the violent expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and their land by Zionist militias and the newly-formed Israeli army — was justified by the idea that the aims of U.S. imperialism in pioneering the partition plan were to make reparations to the Jewish people for the Holocaust — a tragedy that was knowingly permitted by the United States until it entered the war following Pearl Harbor. In other words, the United States justified its inaction and indifference in the face of the extermination of millions of Jews by financing and directing the violent expulsion of approximately three-quarters of the Palestinian population to create the state of Israel. 

The Zionist state is an artificial imperialist creation in its very origins. As such, it sustains, reproduces, and executes in conjunction a specific form historically: namely, a form of settler colonialism that employs the methods of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the aberrant product of a century of domination under the Pax Americana.

The Zionist state is an imperialist monster only possible in the world order that facilitated its colonial expansion.

Leon Trotsky had two different prognoses regarding World War II: Either the proletarian revolution had a chance to transform the imperialist carnage into an international socialist revolution or “the bourgeois regime comes out of the war with impunity.” If the proletarian revolution went ahead, this would prevent the decomposition of its leaderships like Stalinism. As Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello explain in “At the Limits of the ‘Bourgeois Restoration’”:

The result of the Second World War was that neither of these two variants appeared in their pure form; imperialism did not go unpunished, for the bourgeoisie was expropriated across one third of the planet after the war; but neither did the proletariat win power and do away with the conditions which lead to degeneration. The defeat of Nazism at the hands of the Red Army led to a renewed prestige for Stalinism, which in turn used it to put a brake on revolution in the postwar period (the Yalta and Potsdam agreements). It succeeded in betraying the revolutions in the countries of France, Italy, and Greece, but failed to contain revolution in the colonies and semi-colonies.

Though the United States emerged as the main power leading the new world order in the immediate aftermath of WWII, this dominance was established with important contradictions. The Soviet Union also emerged strengthened after WWII; this was not by the merit of the Stalinist bureaucracy, but rather by the power of the Red Army, the proletarian army that swept the Nazis away into the bloody Russian winter.

It is under this new world order with all its particularities that the United States, with the complicity of the United Nations and the endorsement of Stalinism, artificially imposes the state of Israel as an enclave of its political and military interests. The Nakba is not only the historical event that encapsulates the colonial character of Zionism, but the profound expression of the expansion and consolidation of U.S. interests in the Middle East.

In light of this history, sectors of the Palestine solidarity movement that defend the two-state policy omit this aspect of the genesis of the Zionist state that makes its existence contradictory to the emancipation of Palestinians and Jews. There is no state of Israel without land dispossession, expulsion of entire communities, and ethnic cleansing carried out by a brutal army and paramilitary settler groups. There is no state of Israel without imperialism.

Jabra Nicola and the Permanent Revolution in Palestine

Palestinian communists taking part in the struggle for Palestinian liberation from its very beginning articulated this relationship between imperialism and Zionism in their theoretical elaborations, and identified the need for the working class of the region to lead the fight for emancipation. Jabra Nicola was born in Haifa in 1912. He joined the Palestinian Communist Party in the early 1930s in his early 20s. From very early on, he criticized the policies of Stalinism and came closer to the small dissident Trotskyist circles that continued to work within the party under the banners of the Left Opposition and which would later join the Revolutionary Communist League and the Fourth International at the behest of Jewish Trotskyist Tony Cliff in 1940.

After he joined the movement for the Fourth International, Nicola undertook the theoretical task of understanding the Palestinian conflict using the lens of the “Law of Unequal and Combined Development” and the theory of Permanent Revolution to formulate a strategic response to the challenges of the Arab revolution.

In the introduction to his most important, albeit unfinished, work, “Arab Nation and the Asiatic Mode of Production,” Nicola described the social structure of the Middle East as the result of the clash between developing intrinsic historical tendencies and the enormous exogenous forces of brutal imperialist penetration and, in Palestine, Zionist colonization:

Current Arab society, throughout the Middle East, is going through a political and social crisis. It is sometimes attributed to the defeat of 1967. But it is obvious that it existed and developed long before this war, which was in fact only a symptom of it. The defeat only deepened it, sharpened it, and brought it to light.

It is not only an economic crisis, a crisis of underdeveloped countries struggling to find the path to economic development, nor simply a political crisis of countries more or less dominated by imperialism, faced with the permanent threat of their colonialist and expansionist neighbor, created thanks to imperialism, which still maintains and supports it financially and militarily so that it can be a whip against countries that would try to rise up against it; it is mainly a social crisis which finds its roots in the process of development in these countries. It is not a simple economic crisis of underdevelopment, or a political crisis, it is a global social crisis, a historical product not only arising from the economic, political, social, and cultural particularities inherited from traditional Arab society, but also, and to a large extent, the product of its ancient and still existing relations with the advanced capitalist countries. This crisis is the expression of the contradiction between the economic and social bases and the foreign superstructures imposed on it.

It was from an understanding of the existing relationship between the acute imperialist domination over the Arab world — which in the case of Palestine is combined with colonial domination by the imperialist enclave of Israel — and the weakness and dependence of the regional bourgeoisies that Nicola came to the conclusion that Palestinian and Arab liberation from the yoke of imperialism and Zionism cannot be realized within the framework of a bourgeois democratic revolution or a “national revolution” because the local ruling classes are completely dependent on or are extremely weak in the face of imperialist forces. For Nicola, the subject of Palestinian national liberation is the Arab working class, in alliance with the peasants. In his “Theses on the Revolution in the Middle East” he states:

The revolution in the Arab East cannot be a “Democratic” national or bourgeois revolution but a Proletarian Socialist one. It is possible only as a permanent revolution. Without the conquest of power by the working class supported by the poor peasantry, and the institution of socialist measures, neither national democratic tasks nor rapid industrialization can be achieved to meet the pressing economic needs of the masses.

Throughout Nicola’s work we can see a very clear attempt to articulate Palestinian liberation alongside socialist revolution in the Arab world, demonstrating a deep understanding of the potentially powerful unity of the Arab proletariat beyond the national borders imposed by imperialism. We can also see a very serious attempt to understand the particularities of the Palestinian situation.

Just as imperialist penetration in the Middle East created variegated social structures resulting from uneven and combined development, Palestinian society — its socio-economic structure — was shaped by the settler colonialism of the state of Israel. As Dal Fitto argues, quoting Nicola:

The emerging Zionist society clashed with the diverse classes of Palestinian Arab society. It brought capital, technological solutions and modern knowledge from Europe. Jewish capital (often supported by Zionist funds) gradually displaced feudal elements by simply buying their land, and Zionist regulations prohibited the resale of land to Arabs. Possessing financial and economic advantages, the Zionist capitalist economy blocked the emergence of an Arab capitalist class. After clashing with the Arab peasants by expelling them from their lands, Zionism also prevented the emergence of a [strong Palestinian] proletariat in the Jewish sector of the economy. Because the capitalist development of the Arab sector was delayed and impeded, the peasants (as well as the Arab intelligentsia) found it extremely difficult to find employment, except in the British Mandate administration and in the public services. The social and economic structure of Arab Palestine (which had begun to develop under conditions very similar to those prevailing in Syria) was completely distorted by Zionist colonization. This distortion still persists today.

As Enzo Dal Fitto puts it in his interpretation of Nicola’s thought:

The need to acquire land, buying it sometimes above its value, and to give work to Jews coming from successive waves of immigration justified a racist policy based on the exclusivity of Jewish employment in the industrial sector and the prohibition of the sale of land to Arabs. This policy thus weakened the feudal structures of the agrarian economy while preventing the proletarianization of Arabs due to several large Jewish companies’ prohibition of hiring Arab workers. Under these conditions, feudalism began to disappear without the development of a capitalist economic structure. Such an economic structure prevented the emergence of a powerful Arab political leadership.

This blockage of the development of a clearly differentiated class society as a result of the “distortion” of Zionist colonization had, for Nicola, profound consequences in the configuration of the Palestinian political superstructure:

The socio-economic distortion is reflected in the political sphere. Because the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the peasantry were denied a normal path of development, they failed to produce political parties and leaders of sufficient caliber. The political leadership of Arab Palestine remained in the hands of the landlords who, despite liquidating themselves as a class by selling their land to the Zionists, made enormous financial gains through these transactions.

For Nicola, using the logic of Permanent Revolution, this weakness of the Palestinian social structure under the yoke of settler colonialism made it imperative for the Palestinian working class and peasantry to escalate the struggle for their national liberation to the regional level, uniting the Arab working class behind the anti-imperialist and socialist revolution. It is the “borderless” solidarity of the Arab working class that can provide material, military, and political support to the Palestinian cause if the workers and oppressed throw off the shackles of their own capitalist class and, in many cases, dictatorial governments.

Nicola’s elaborations represent a strategic and profoundly internationalist vision of the anti-imperialist alliance of the Arab proletariat forged in the heat of the struggle for a radical democratic demand — in this case the question of Palestinian liberation. Crucially, he tied this unity to the struggle for socialism, keeping this firmly on the horizon; his conception of Palestinian liberation is anchored in the transcendence of national frameworks to think creatively about the question of national liberation beyond the confines of the bourgeois nation state that would always be tied to imperialism and consequently exploitation and oppression. He counterposed such nationalistic conceptions to proletarian internationalism. 

This proletarian internationalism was reinforced by Nicola’s understanding of the importance of the alliance of the Arab and Israeli proletariat. This divided his perspective (the perspective of the Permanent Revolution) from the Palestinian Communist Party that since its origins succumbed to enormous nationalist pressures exerted — then and now — on the Israeli and Palestinian Left. As we have already seen, these pressures came from both Zionism as a counterrevolutionary force in the region, and, to a different extent, from sectors of the resistance against Zionism made up of the Arab nationalist or fundamentalist leaderships that do not propose an emancipatory project for the working class, nor for the Palestinian and Arab masses. 

For Nicola, it was fundamental to understand the socio-economic structure of the Zionist state, which is distinguished from other settler-colonial states by its highly-developed internal class hierarchy with a well-defined proletariat, middle class, and bourgeoisie. Added to this is the system of apartheid maintained by Israel against the Arab population that resides within its borders, a sector that provides cheap labor without rights; this apartheid regime is enforced by a military armed with the weapons of imperialist countries and armed civilian population organized to terrorize the Palestinian population and to carry out the seizure of Palestinian lands.

Nicola understood the fascistic features of a militarized Israeli society and the ideological hegemony of Zionism. However, as Dal Fitto explains, the Israeli proletariat is a potentially revolutionary force:

[It] has much to gain if it replaces the tutelage of imperialism with cooperation with and integration to the surrounding Arab world. Consequently, class analysis must point to the solidarity of interests between the different components of the proletariat in the Middle East and not the single internal differentiation of the class structure of Arab Palestine. For Nicola, it must bring to light the internal tensions within the state of Israel that could potentially destroy it from within.

However, Nicola did not view the struggle against imperialism and Zionism as contingent on the potential alliance of the Israeli and Palestinian proletariat, aware that the Israeli proletariat was the social base of the colonial state and that any revolutionary politics developing within it implied embracing the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and the total rupture of the Israeli working class with Zionism. Moreover, for Nicola, Palestinian liberation could not be subordinated to the emergence of the potential alliance between the Jewish and Palestinian proletariat; it first passed through the unity of the Arab proletariat across the region towards the dismantling the state of Israel with a socialist perspective, which could set the foundations for that alliance and for the liberation of the entire region from the yoke of imperialism and capitalist domination as a whole:

Israeli Jews are currently a nation of oppressors because they form the Zionist state of Israel, which is an outpost of imperialism in the region and which plays an oppressive and counter-revolutionary role against the Arab revolution. But the victorious Arab socialist revolution means the defeat of Zionism and the destruction of the entire structure of the Zionist state, the liquidation of imperialist domination and influence in the Middle East, as well as the restoration of Palestinian rights.

In 1963, Nicola joined Matzpen, an organization that emerged from an anti-Zionist break with the Israeli Communist Party in 1962. Nicola was instrumental in shaping the organization’s political ideology and in giving its programmatic approach to Palestinian liberation a permanent character. Under Nicola’s influence, the young organization made a profound assessment of the responsibility of the Soviet Union in the process of Zionist colonization and the creation of the state of Israel.

In its founding years, Matzpen was able to elaborate theoretically on the specific physiognomy of the permanent revolution in Palestine, highlighting in its program the need to divorce the structures of the colonial state from Zionism on the road to dismantling them, the alliance of the Arab and Jewish proletariat on the basis of the struggle against Zionist indoctrination, and, above all, the necessary regional alliance between different sectors of the Arab proletariat, which is the revolutionary subject of Palestinian and regional liberation from the yoke of imperialism and toward the construction of a socialist society. This characterization is not meant to serve as a comprehensive balance sheet of the political perspectives of Nicola or Matzpen as an organization.3We have differences with aspects of both Nicola’s theoretical perspective and Matzpen’s trajectory as a revolutionary organization. In the case of the latter, the organization was ambiguous in its program for a free Palestine, declining to take a clear stand against the two state solution. But what we want to highlight from this moment of their political perspective and program — in particular the perspective of Nicola — is the revindication of the theory of Permanent Revolution as a strategic compass for Palestinian liberation.

More than half a century has passed since the UN decreed the foundation of the state of Israel; since then heroic instances of class struggle developed in the Arab world in different moments, always with the Palestinian cause in the background. Nicola’s ideas and the theory of Permanent Revolution were proven, albeit in the negative, with the rise of Arab nationalism that betrayed the struggle for Palestinian liberation and in the emergence of new fundamentalist leaderships.

From Arab Nationalism to Political Islam

The creation of the state of Israel dramatically destabilized the geopolitics of the Middle East and, hand in hand with imperialist penetration, exacerbated social tensions that erupted in class struggle and political crises from the 1950s onwards. It is in this period that new post-colonial governments diverse variants of Arab nationalism emerged, embodied in political leaders such as King Faisal I of Iraq, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Muammar Gaddafi; this included organizations such as the Arab Nationalist Movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party. These leaderships were hegemonic until the Six-Day War in 1967. As Claudia Cinatti says in “Political Islam, Anti-Imperialism and Marxism”:

The historical context of the rise of Islamism begins with Israel’s victory during the Six-Day War of 1967 which marked the beginning of the irreversible decline of the post-colonial bourgeois nationalist bourgeois regimes that seized power through popularly-supported coups against the regional powers of the Middle East in the 1950s. On June 6, 1967 the state of Israel launched a preemptive attack against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. In only six days the Zionist troops defeated the three countries, occupying the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, the Golan Heights in Syria, as well as Jerusalem and the West Bank. So intense was the impact of these events that Nasser resigned on the very night of the attack. Although a mobilization of millions kept him in power, Nasserist nationalism was already exhausted. Nasser died in 1970 and his successor, Anwar Sadat, initiated a program of opening up the economy and widespread privatizations that had catastrophic consequences for the population, especially for those sectors that flowed in massive numbers from rural areas into the main cities during the Nasserist boom and constituted a mass of urban poor on the outskirts of the cities.

The defeat of the Arab states in the Six-Day War imposed the balance of power necessary for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to eventually sign the Camp David Accords in 1978, making Egypt the first Arab country to recognize the Zionist state of Israel. From 1967 to 1973, most Arab countries were the scene of intense protests against the old nationalist governments that fleetingly strengthened left-wing nationalist organizations, including both variants of Stalinism and other secular groups. But this phenomenon was short-lived; in the face of the crisis of traditional nationalism, it was the increasingly politicized Islamic organizations that began to gain ground among Arab youth. As Cinatti explains:

…new and old Islamist organizations…were strengthened among the unemployed youth, who constituted a mass of urban poor in countries like Egypt and Algeria, and among university students and sectors of the intelligentsia formed in the years when higher education was more accessible but who were later unable to find employment. Compared to the traditional organizations, these groups radicalized their religious discourse and their methods of action…The rise in popularity of Hamas, which allowed it to win the legislative elections of January 2006 at the expense of Al Fatah, is the most obvious sign of the debacle of bourgeois nationalism and its conciliatory policy with imperialism and the state of Israel.

Jabra Nicola drew lessons from the role of Arab nationalisms consistent with his vision of the dynamics of permanent revolution as a whole. In his “Theses on Revolution in the Arab East,” he wrote:

In 1948 the settler-colonial Zionist state of Israel was created through the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homes. They were dispersed into the neighboring Arab states where their social conditions were epitomized by their consignment to refugee camps. Although the regimes of the Arab states proclaimed their opposition to the Israeli state, in practice nothing was done by those regimes to regain the right of the Palestinians to their homeland… When Nasser came to power, his attempt to substitute state apparatuses in place of the masses against Israel kept the Palestinians, as well as the Egyptians and other Arab masses immobilized… The defeat of the Arab armies in June 1967 was a grave blow and shook the Arab masses. The Nasserite leadership, upon which the Arab masses, including the Palestinians, pinned their hopes in their struggle against imperialism and Zionist Israel, was exposed by the debacle and proved incapable of leading the struggle either against imperialism or for regaining the rights of the Palestinians for their homeland. As a result those regimes were shaken and felt the danger of being overthrown by the masses who began to awaken to their bankruptcy.

The reinvigoration and politicization of Islamic organizations throughout the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s was expressed in Palestine — and Lebanon — belatedly and consequently acquired particular characteristics. As Dal Fitto writes, describing the emergence of Hamas as a petty bourgeois leadership that was able to channel aspirations for Palestinian liberation after the successive betrayals of the Arab bourgeoisies:

[The] religious petty bourgeoisie (Hamas, Islamic Jihad) is guided by the strategy of “revolutionary Islam,” imported from Egypt under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood; it was strongly influenced by Iranian Shiite political theology which was victorious in 1979 following the overthrow of the pro-imperialist regime of Reza Pahlavi and the institution of a Shiite theocracy under the aegis of Khomeini who oversaw the bloody repression of the communist and workers groups that participated in the revolution.

Both Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon are organizations that lead sectors of the national liberation movements and have an extended social and political electoral base. As Cinatti points out:

Since the late 1960s the Palestine Liberation Organization controlled by the bourgeois nationalist faction of Fatah had led the Palestinian national struggle. The radical wings of the movement, far from being channeled through Islamism, found expression in groups of Marxist affiliation such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). This panorama, dominated by secular leaderships, began to change in the course of the first Intifada of 1987, when Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, together with other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, settled in the Palestinian territories and founded the Islamic Resistance Movement — Hamas.

Hamas made its first public appearance in 1987 within the framework of the Intifada that spread throughout the Palestinian territories, led by the poor youth from refugee camps and urban neighborhoods. Cinatti writes that “the hallmark of Hamas was to give the hatred of Palestinian youth a religious logic, to ‘galvanize the poor as the embodiment of the true people, of the pure and sincere Umma as opposed to the “corrupt” secular elites, thus orienting them towards the alliance with the pious bourgeoisie.’” In the years that followed, the social base of Hamas spread throughout the Gaza Strip until 2001, when Ariel Sharon won the presidency of the state of Israel and launched a new offensive against Palestine, intensifying the military siege.

The Israeli Defense Forces, led by Sharon, advanced into Palestinian territory and kept Yasser Arafat under house arrest until his death. Arafat’s successor at the head of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, deepened the PLO’s collaboration with the Zionist occupying forces and the United States as the situation became increasingly untenable for the Palestinian masses. It is in this context that Hamas won the 2006 elections in the Gaza Strip. As Claudia Cinatti explains, writing in 2009:

Hamas has capitalized on the decline of Arab bourgeois nationalism, maintaining an anti-American and anti-Israeli discourse, without even mentioning its goal of establishing an Islamic state based on Sharia. But beyond its conjunctural electoral programs and sustaining the resistance against the Israeli occupation, the strategy of founding a confessional state in historical Palestinian territory has a reactionary character and is incapable of offering a progressive solution to the just national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Religious morality as an absolute value and law of the state, not only attacks elementary democratic freedoms while maintaining an instrument of social oppression, but also tries to hide the fact that in Muslim societies include, as in Western society, exploiters and exploited, and that religion is at the service of maintaining the domination of the former.

Hamas’s horizon of replacing the state of Israel with a religious state cannot bring about the emancipation of the Arab, Muslim, or the Jewish masses. A religious state of the Iranian type is not only an authoritarian state but also a capitalist one, divided by deep class contradictions. A policy independent of the Palestinian cause requires in the first place, a consistent anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist policy, and at the same time a policy independent of the Arab bourgeoisies that use the Palestinian cause as a base of maneuver for their own interests while exploiting the proletariat and the peasants of their countries, in many cases oppressing the youth, women, LGBTQ people, and the Left.

What the various parties and figures of Arab nationalism have in common with the Islamist organizations that are part of the popularly-supported resistance movements against Zionism (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) that proposes to end Zionist oppression without touching capitalist class relations or the structural interests of imperialism in the region.

The Arab Spring

On December 17, 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself on fire in protest after the police seized his goods, insulted him and overturned his cart. Tens of thousands of Tunisians revolted in tribute to Bouazizi and against the hunger and misery imposed by decades of neoliberalism and exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008. Meanwhile, Bouazizi fought for his life in the hospital. The masses turned their anger against the authoritarian presidency of Abidine Ben Ali who had ruled the country since 1987. Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011 and Ben Ali was ousted from power by the masses just ten days later on January 14.

The Tunisian rebellion spread like wildfire throughout the region. In Egypt, millions of people took to the streets against Hosni Mubarak; in Libya they protested Muammar Gaddafi; in Syria they rebelled against Bahar Al Assad; and so on in Algeria and even Yemen. Though they had their own particularities, what these governments had in common was that they came to power with a bourgeois nationalist program at the peak of post-colonial Arab nationalism after World War II. After the political and economic crises of the 1970s, these same governments shifted to neoliberalism and enforced U.S. mandates with increasingly oppressive and authoritarian methods.

Of course, the countries that experienced massive revolts during the Arab Spring are socially, politically, religiously, and ethnically heterogeneous and their economic structures are unequal and diverse. However, many historical trends are common to them; the Arab Spring laid bare this “unity of issues” across the region. The 2008 crisis, for example, which expressed itself in rising food prices, triggered a food crisis across North Africa. In Tunisia and Egypt, the urban poor led bread riots prior to the Arab Spring; before the outbreak of the mobilizations against Mubarak, the working class had undergone a process of recomposition and struggle against low wages in important working-class centers such as Mahalla el Kubra in Egypt.

The processes of class struggle of the “Arab Spring” had different degrees of depth, and involvement of the masses — in short, different dynamics in each country. They were processes of revolt against brutal dictatorships that were ultimately taken advantage of by imperialism; the imperialist powers used these revolts as opportunities to get rid of partners who no longer served imperialist ends, even intervening militarily as in Libya and Syria, against Kadafi and Assad respectively.

In Libya for example, the rebellion against Kadafi’s dictatorship resulted in deadly repression against the people; as the revolt lacked an independent leadership based on the self-organization of the masses, this was quickly used by the imperialist powers to intervene directly through NATO, unleashing a bloody civil war and consequently a greater subordination to imperialism after the execution of Kadafi. As we in the Trotskyist Fraction outlined in the Manifesto for a Movement for a Revolutionary Socialist International in 2013:

In the case of open civil wars like Libya, one cannot separate the military struggle against the dictators from the struggle against imperialism, nor relegate to second place the question of which class is dominating the process and what is their social content. The subordination of the political to the military leads to interpreting the success of the NATO intervention in toppling Ghadafi as a “triumph” of the movement of the masses. This took place at a time when the United States and other powers were jumping on the anti-dictatorship bandwagon in order to win new allies following regime changes in order to prevent the democracy movements from taking on a “permanent” dynamic. In other words, they aimed to keep the movements from transforming into a struggle against the bourgeois and imperialist state. In Syria those who side with the ‘rebels’ without political reservation, or refuse to put forward a strategy independent of the pro-imperialist rebel leaderships maintained by the allies of the United States, are making the same mistakes.

In Egypt a more profound and advanced process developed, led by radicalized sectors of the working class, which brought down Mubarak and confronted the neoliberal policies of the moderate Islamist government of the Muslim Brotherhood that followed. The activity of the working class and the masses, coupled with the weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood government, threatened the regime as a whole; consequently the army staged a coup d’etat with the endorsement of the main leaderships of the bourgeois opposition. The result was an authoritarian government completely subservient to U.S. interests. As the Manifesto states:

All the Islamic organizations that reached power — such as Annahd Party in Tunisia and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt — are bourgeois forces that preach a mix of religious fanaticism, clientelistic populism and neoliberal economics. Revolutionaries combat these policies from a working class and anti-imperialist point of view and not by building alliances with the liberal and secular bourgeoisie or their representatives. The dynamics of the movement in Egypt show that there cannot be a democratic revolution without giving permanent answers to demands related to the living conditions of the masses, and that these cannot be achieved without ending all imperialist oppression. This is the first structural democratic question that must be resolved by the revolution and that can only be guided to the end by the working class.

The cycle of class struggle known as the “Arab Spring” demonstrated the economic, cultural, historical, and social unity that unites the Arab proletariat across the Middle East; this unity is founded not solely on linguistic, religious or cultural ties, but by a shared history of exploitation, imperialist oppression, and class struggle.

However, it also revealed the great obstacle posed by the Arab bourgeoisies and the organizations that collaborate with them in the name of “anti-imperialist” struggle, even as these Arab states exploit and oppress the working masses of their own countries, using them as a base of maneuver to achieve concessions from foreign imperialism.

The Permanent Revolution and Palestine Today: Notes for a debate with the PSL

Debates on the character, dynamics, and subject of Palestinian liberation that were part of the strategic discussions between Marxist revolutionaries and national liberation movements in the 20th century — and central to the polemic between Trotskyism and Stalinism — are still relevant today as a new political generation examines the history of Palestine and the struggles for emancipation of exploited and oppressed people across the world.

In the United States, the de facto leaders of the movement in solidarity with Palestine put forward politics at the national level that are deeply — though to varying degrees explicit and implicit — shaped by their international strategy and are based on how they characterize the struggle for Palestinian liberation. The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is one of the leading organizations of the pro-Palestine movement in the United States. It mobilized against the Israeli offensive on Gaza immediately after October 7 and its members have been persecuted and repressed for standing in solidarity with Palestine.

Their politics towards the pro-Palestine movement have concentrated on organizing major street mobilizations across the country under the demand for a ceasefire, pressuring Biden in the lead up to the presidential election to advance diplomatic measures against Israel; in the international sphere they rely on resolutions from within organizations such as the UN to pressure these institutions toward a more sympathetic position regarding Palestine, in opposition to the United States — under the logic that these organizations can be used to enforce policies that favor colonial and semi-colonial countries and countries that seek to challenge U.S. imperialist hegemony.

This policy ultimately corresponds to the PSL’s conception of the struggle for national liberation more generally. In “Why the Palestine Movement is a Struggle for National Liberation,” Joe Tache of the PSL argues that:

In many ways, Israel’s brutality in Gaza has been uniquely horrifying. But the colonial relationship between Israel and Palestine is not unique. Throughout the world, entire nations of people have faced national oppression. In some cases, national oppression manifests within the borders of a single country — think of the longstanding oppression of Black and Native peoples within the United States. In other cases of national oppression, a colonial power will take complete control over a colony, while still treating the colony as a separate entity than the colonizing country. This is the primary form that national oppression took throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America during the era of colonialism. Palestine is a mix of both dynamics because the 1.6 million Palestinians who live within the borders of Israel — despite holding Israeli citizenship — are systematically oppressed by the Zionist regime, as are those Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The former face institutionalized discrimination and exclusion as Israel denies them equal nationality and status, while Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are subject to land theft, house demolitions, restrictions on movement, mass arrests, and severe repression for political dissent, among other things.

The above paragraphs are more enlightening for what they do not say than for what they do say. Of course Israel is a settler colonial state with an internal apartheid regime as Tache describes and which other historians, including Ilan Pappé, have described in detail. But the exceptionality of Israeli settler colonialism is not only “internal”; in that sense, Tache omits a fundamental issue: the dual character of Israel as both a settler colonial state and an imperialist enclave.

Unlike the colonial powers of previous centuries, particularly the 19th century, Israel’s colonialism arose as part of the U.S.-led attempt to reorganize the world in service of maintaining its post-WWII hegemony; as we outlined above, the United States helped to establish a regional military ally in the race for the subjugation of the Arab world in order to claim the region’s resources and contain class struggle at any cost. U.S. imperialism has forged an almost symbiotic relationship with the Zionist state of Israel that is not only based on sharing military, intelligence, and technological resources, but which has also shaped the contours of the U.S. bipartisan regime and its public and private imperialist institutions.

Tache’s piece and other articles from the PSL concerning national liberation in Palestine correctly denounce the role of Biden and U.S. imperialism in alliance with Israel. They demand a “free Palestine” and to “cut all U.S. aid for the apartheid regime and free all Palestinian political prisoners,” as their October 7 statement states. However, by not defining the exceptional nature of Israel’s oppression of Palestine from the point of view of its character as an imperialist enclave, they erase the international dimension of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. This has consequences for what perspective the PSL envisions for the Palestinian future.

In an article entitled “From South Africa to Palestine, Apartheid will fall,” Tache himself makes an analogy between South Africa and Palestine as anti-Apartheid struggles. Though Tache identifies important similarities between these two examples, these two regimes have crucial differences that have a bearing on the course of their respective struggles. But this comparison is illuminating in what it reveals about the PSL’s conception of national liberation and the character of imperialism itself.

In the case of Palestine, Tache ignores the fact that, in contrast to South Africa — which was dominated by declining imperialist powers — a critical part of the imperialist project of creating the artificial state of Israel was to defend an ascendent U.S. imperialism in the region. At the end of WWII, this had the international strategic objective of containing the struggles of the Arab proletariat against imperialist oppression and establishing a lethal army in the region to act in its interests. Overlooking this aspect creates illusions in the possibility of weakening U.S. ties to Israel without challenging the very system that created Israel in the first place. As Tache writes

The U.S. government is a central force in maintaining the oppression of Palestinians due to its unconditional military, political, and diplomatic support for Israel. This gives the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States a particular responsibility. The role of the movement in the United States is not to criticize the ideology or strategy of the Palestinian liberation movement, but rather to do our part to support Palestinians in overthrowing the yoke of colonialism so that they can decide for themselves how they wish to organize their society. But the cracks are showing. As the last five months of mass mobilizations, and most recently, the stunning sacrifice made by U.S. Air Force service member Aaron Bushnell has demonstrated, Zionist propaganda and the unwavering U.S. government support for Israel are wearing thin. [Emphasis added]

The PSL’s perspective for the movement is to undermine the Biden administration’s support for Netanyahu. Schematically we can say that it is a strategy based on organizing large street demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine while pressuring Biden to decree a ceasefire by threatening his reelection in 2024 with initiatives like the “uncommitted” campaign.

Ultimately, by strategically misunderstanding and therefore underestimating both the nature of U.S.-Israeli relations, and the imperialist character of the Zionist settler colonial project, the PSL believes that pressure can be put on the bipartisan regime to adopt more generous policies to help the Palestinian people “throw off the yoke of colonialism.”

But Zionist colonialism depends on U.S. imperialism and vice versa. This is not to say that the two states cannot have conflicting interests or that Biden cannot confront Netanyahu, but that their structural relationship is so deep that the U.S. regime “knows” that Israel can drag it into this war against the Palestinian people and blow Israel’s already ailing regional hegemony to smithereens. 

In one sense, the U.S. relationship with Israel is existential. Defeating this reactionary U.S.-Israel alliance requires an internationalist strategy. However, this cannot mean an internationalist strategy from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, in which “the enemies of my enemies are my friends.” Instead, we must advance the perspective of proletarian internationalism. It is the Arab working class and the oppressed across the Middle East — peasants and the urban poor — who have a common interest in liberating Palestine and throwing the imperialist boot off their necks. 

The Palestinian cause is felt deeply by the masses of the region because it encapsulates all the grievances, all the violence, and all the despair that the imperialist offensive — economic and military — has brought upon them, including the actions of their own governments. In pursuit of capitalist “national liberation,” the Arab states — no matter how much they oppose imperialism in partial aspects — have kept the masses subdued to avoid breaking U.S. hegemony. Above all, they maintain and seek to strengthen capitalist social and productive relations, including the application of neoliberal plans in the last several decades.

Dismissing the role of imperialism as a stage of capitalism is concomitant with narrowing or reducing the struggle for Palestinian liberation to the struggle for a Palestinian nation. For the PSL, the class character of this “nation” is indeterminate, nor is it clear whether such a formation would coexist with the Israeli state since they do not clearly position themselves as calling for the dismantling of the Zionist state. Quoting Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, Tache writes:

…national oppression removes a people from their process of historical development: “The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonized is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense”. We can see this clearly in the case of Palestine. It is impossible for Palestinians to fully grapple with questions of social and economic development while under the boot of Israeli oppression. How can Palestinians make an infrastructure plan when their schools, houses, and hospitals are at constant threat of being bombed or otherwise destroyed? How can they invest in social and cultural development when every day is a struggle for survival? How can they fully engage in politics when their day-to-day movement and fundamental rights are so thoroughly restricted by Israeli apartheid? How can they even begin the process of development, when Israel controls, whether directly or indirectly, nearly every aspect of the Palestinian economy?

Although PSL members advise against questioning the organizations that are part of the Palestinian resistance because “it is the Palestinians who must decide autonomously” — identifying all Palestinians mechanically with their leadership — they themselves seem to have a fairly clear idea of how Palestinian liberation should be carried out. That is to say that for them, it follows almost as historical law that Palestine must first constitute itself as a nation-state and from there promote its economic and cultural development like South Africa in the post-apartheid period. The limits of this approach are clear in the case of South Africa, which continues to suffer under the yoke of imperialism and which maintains the hyper-exploitation of the Black proletariat. 

This proposal is not actualized in a vacuum, but rather in the context of the actual programs, platforms, and strategy of the Arab leaderships that, in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah, fight explicitly — while tacitly respecting the 1967 borders and therefore the existence of Israel — for fundamentalist states in the style of Iran that are nothing other than religious authoritarian regimes with capitalist class structures.

This is to say that Palestinian liberation is, for both the PSL and the leaderships of the national liberation movement, a process that occurs by accepting the existence of the state of Israel — which is ontologically inconsistent with Palestinian liberation — and accepting that the only possible solution is to build some kind of Palestinian state — capitalist and fundamentalist — in the framework of two states that will bring the Palestinian masses out of underdevelopment. Though the PSL does not explicitly promote the two state solution, its perspective is that Palestine should follow the South African example of imposing a post-colonial capitalist state to develop regional capitalism.

This political orientation has important similarities with the policy of Stalinism that we described earlier which led the communist parties to promote the tactic of the “anti-imperialist united front” at the end of the 1920s which was a political and in some cases military agreement of collaboration with the bourgeois or petty bourgeois leaderships of the national liberation movements. In that sense, the anti-imperialism of the PSL is based on supporting any leadership and/or national state that opposes U.S. imperialism critically and without class delimitation; they ignore the fact that these states oppress their own proletariat and separate the struggle for national liberation from the struggle against imperialism, if by imperialism we understand a specific epoch of capitalism that can only be swept away by socialism. As the Trotskyist Faction, we defend the right of the Palestinian people and its resistance movement — which includes Hamas — to defend itself militarily against the colonial occupation, but this does not imply giving political support to this organization with which we have differences in methods, politics, and strategy.

The PSL’s explicit or implicit uncritical political support for the nationalist leaderships is consistent with its interpretation of Palestinian liberation as an exclusively national struggle. The logic goes that Palestinians can build an independent nation — leaving the question of the existence of the Zionist state undetermined — that follows its own rhythms of gradual capitalist development without defeating regional imperialism, and it is the bourgeois and petty bourgeois leaderships of the Arab world (fundamentalist or secular) that must lead that process. Any attempt to criticize this idea is succumbing to the logic of the oppressor:

Again, it is not the role of the U.S. movement to try to direct the outcome of those struggles, only to support the Palestinians’ right to self-determination — or in other words, their right to reclaim their process of independent historical development and collectively shape their future … genuine internationalism can only be forged on the basis of mutual respect between workers of different nations. If workers who live within imperialist countries try to dictate what workers of oppressed nations should do or believe, it undermines that respect. This is a crucial concept for U.S. workers in particular to grasp. The U.S. government positions itself as “policeman” of the world, and U.S. workers are inundated with propaganda designed to make us believe that it is our right and duty to intervene in the affairs of oppressed nations — a way of thinking that only serves the interests of U.S. imperialism and harms our movement.

Largely absent from these reflections, despite their use of categories like “anti-imperialism” and “the working class,” is the role played by the masses of Palestinian and regional workers and peasants who require both an anti-imperialist policy against Zionism and a policy that is independent of the Arab states or any bourgeois state, instead developing the alliance of the proletariat across the Middle East against their own governments. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are not politically independent, but are organizations that depend politically, militarily, and economically on capitalist states like Lebanon, Qatar, or Iran.

This type of “anti-imperialism” — a kind of anti-imperialism seen from the point of view of “states” and not classes — is part of the international vision that the PSL has of the current world order, in which for them China plays a positive role in the face of U.S. imperialism. For the PSL, China is a progressive alternative. This is expressed in its assessment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In “China is not our enemy,” they write about the last congress of the CCP:

In reality, what the delegates took up at the Congress reflected a governing party that was deeply concerned with the well-being of the Chinese people and committed to making improvements in a wide range of areas. This work was taken up with a level of seriousness and sincerity that would be hard to find in the halls of the U.S. Senate or at meetings of the Democratic or Republican national committees.

The PSL completely omits that 1) Chinese society has become a highly hierarchical class society, with an ostentatious bourgeoisie and a huge proletariat without political rights suffering racial oppression and other forms of oppression, and 2) in the international concert, China has increasingly acquired imperialist traits, massively investing capital in the semicolonial world, that is, oppressing and plundering other countries.

Such a perspective also omits the recent years of class struggle in China, in which the working class and the youth have fought for better living conditions in factories and in general, against the policies of the Chinese Communist Party.

Considering China a sort of “lesser evil” or alternative to U.S. domination was expressed in the PSL’s enthusiastic support for the CCP’s draconian Zero COVID policy — which later gave rise to class struggle in the form of worker and popular discontent against the government. Similarly, they parrot its policy of “peace negotiations” in Ukraine, which though it correctly denounces NATO, gives support to Russia as part of an anti-U.S. bloc by refusing to demand the departure of Russian troops from Ukraine. The international working class cannot take sides in the growing confrontation between U.S. imperialism in decline and the Chinese state with its imperialist traits and aspirations. We need a policy of working class independence, one that confronts the militarist and warmongering tendencies of the capitalist states and also fights for the self-determination of all oppressed peoples, including the fight for Palestinian liberation.

In the heat of this debate, the way in which Jabra Nicola summarized the class dynamics of Palestinian liberation using the perspective of proletarian internationalism and permanent revolution remains relevant today:

Thus, the struggle against imperialism — inseparable from all democratic struggles — can only be a struggle against all the existing dominant classes and regimes in the region. Those classes are junior partners of imperialism; through them imperialism dominates the region and their regimes are the political form of this imperialist domination. Anti-imperialist and democratic struggle is possible only as class struggle of the workers supported by the poor peasants against landlords, clerical comprador classes, and the new bourgeoisie in the Arab world as against Zionism. The permanent revolution in the Arab East can be carried through to victory only on a region-wide basis. As a consequence of the unevenness of development throughout the region, revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations are likely to arise at different times in different places; but whenever and wherever such a situation arises the struggle in that certain place should be a part and parcel of the Arab revolution as a whole, directed by an all-Arab East revolutionary strategy supported directly by mass struggle throughout the whole region, led in such a way that could combine them in one struggle for the needs of the masses in the region as a whole which tend to raise the question of power in the whole Arab East. Only in this way will the most advanced struggles at any given moment find the maximum possible protection against the intervention of the armies of the Arab States, the Zionist State and possibly imperialist intervention. Only in this way will the seizure of power in one country in the area be able to spread and to prevent its crushing by the reactionary forces.

The strategy the PSL presents for the future of the fight against imperialism paints quite a different picture. Ben Becker writes that the PSL fights for a movement that will “build anti-imperialist politics among the working class and is oriented towards unity with the Global South.” But what is the basis of this anti-imperialist politics and the unity with the Global South? 

Here we have a big difference with the PSL. For us, the fight for Palestinian liberation, both in its national/regional manifestation and in the international arena — in particular the movement in solidarity with Palestine in imperialist countries like the United States — requires the independent action of the working class, the poor, students and the oppressed.

On the national-regional terrain this must be expressed in an anti-imperialist struggle against the Zionist state and for all the just demands of the Palestinian people, starting with their self-determination — which directly questions the very existence of the apartheid state of Israel. This struggle, which passes through the dismantling of the Zionist state, can only be carried out by the Palestinian masses with the regional working class leading the struggle, providing material and political support for the Palestinian struggle to triumph. This implies that the Arab proletariat has to revolt against its own governments, such as in Egypt, with the call to open the borders immediately.

In the United States, young people and the working class have enormous power at this moment, as the bipartisan regime directly backs the genocidal offensive of the state of Israel with arms shipments, technology, and resources. Following the example of workers in India and Belgium who blocked arms shipments — and taking on the spirit of the hundreds of thousands of people in the United States who have already mobilized for Palestinian liberation, as well as the students who are fighting in their universities to divest from the state of Israel — the U.S. labor movement can play a key role. It can materially limit the military offensive on Gaza — blocking arms shipments, refusing to produce supplies for the war, and putting major obstacles in the way of the imperialist war machine that carries out the genocide.

In our opinion, today more than ever, the international working class is the social force that can stop the genocide and give an effective struggle against imperialism and Zionism, regionally and in the imperialist countries that support the genocide, especially the United States. And it is the international working class in alliance with the oppressed, the peasants, the urban poor of the region, and the youth that can oppose the Zionist state. The unity of these sectors is capable of imposing a single, secular, multi-ethnic state, based on the self-organization of the masses: a free and socialist Palestine, from the river to the sea where Arabs, Jews, and all ethnic and religious groups that make up the cultural diversity of the Middle East can live in peace, free from the yoke of Zionism and imperialism.

This Palestine which we fight for is only possible with internationalist support: concretely we mean a federation of socialist republics in the Middle East that develops economic and cultural solidarity between regions within the framework of a social organization that also undermines the bases of gender, racial, religious oppression and all that makes us slaves.

Translation by Madeleine Freeman

Notes

Notes
1 Pappé, Ilan. Ten Myths About Israel. Verso Books, 2017.
2 Broué, Pierre. Histoire de l’Internationale communiste (1919-1943). Éditions Fayard. 1997
3 We have differences with aspects of both Nicola’s theoretical perspective and Matzpen’s trajectory as a revolutionary organization. In the case of the latter, the organization was ambiguous in its program for a free Palestine, declining to take a clear stand against the two state solution. But what we want to highlight from this moment of their political perspective and program — in particular the perspective of Nicola — is the revindication of the theory of Permanent Revolution as a strategic compass for Palestinian liberation.
Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.