From Militant Irish Monthly, October 1983.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (July 2012)
Ours is an epoch of wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Nothing better illustrates the present instability of capitalism on a world scale than the terrible events in Lebanon. Fifteen months after the Israeli army moved in, supposedly to “pacify” Lebanon, there have been 25,000 casualties, mostly civilian but among them over 500 Israeli soldiers. Lebanon itself is threatened with disintegration, torn apart by its rival national and religious based factions.
Begin’s promise that invasion would end the “curse” of the PLO and reduce the threat of war has turned sour. War between Syria and Israel has been made more possible.
Behind Israel, and also now directly behind the right wing Maronite dominated Lebanese government, stands America. Behind Syria lies the might and vested interests of the Russian bureaucracy. Already, and as if to further demonstrate the fragility of world relations, the fighting in this country of only three million people has brought the two superpowers into nose to nose confrontation. Off Lebanon’s coast Russia and America have between them, the biggest carrier fleet assembled in one place since World War Two.
As with the situation in Northern Ireland the conflict is conveniently put down by the medieval conflict between religious warlords fought out in the clothes and with the weapons of the 20th century. However, just as there is more to the events in Northern Ireland than religion, so too the conflict in the Lebanon can only be understood from a class point of view.
All of the bloodshed in Ireland is, in the last analysis, an inheritance of the past policies of Imperialism. This is also the case in the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular. The 100 million people of the Arab world share a common language, culture, religion and tradition. Today these people are divided into separate states only because these were carved out of the desert kingdoms chiefly by British and French Imperialism.
All are parodies of the nation states of the advanced capitalist world. During the First World War Britain, France and Tsarist Russia met secretly and drew up the Sykes-Picot plan. In this they agreed to divide amongst themselves the Middle East territories then controlled by the crumbling Ottoman Empire. After the defeat of the German-Turkish axis British and French Imperialism shared out these territories just as a group of pirates would share out any other war booty.
Iraq and Palestine went to Britain. France seized what is now Syria and Lebanon. In order to offset the danger of Arab revolution France partitioned and balkanised the region. Syria was divided into small entities. Part of its territory was grafted onto the Christian area of Lebanon and the artificial state of “Greater Lebanon” was founded. Lebanon, formerly an autonomous Christian region of the Turkish Empire, thus became a state whose population was a delicate balance of Christians and Muslims. This was achieved at the same time and for the same reasons as the British ruling class were partitioning Ireland.
Throughout the colonial world the native ruling cliques and classes have been and are incapable of resisting Imperialist conquest. The dominant Maronite bankers, merchants and capitalists of Lebanon, like the Arab Sheiks of the states around them, were quite prepared to come to terms with Imperialist rule. They were incapable of playing the role once played by the Western bourgeoisie, of unifying behind them the people of their territory and developing a sense of national identity.
Domination by the right wing Christian Phalange Party, founded in 1936 by the father of the present Prime Minister, was only thinly disguised before 1975 by the existence of a power-sharing constitution. There was an agreement that the President would always be a Christian and the Prime Minister a Muslim. As in Northern Ireland in 1973–74 power-sharing at the top does not of itself mean integration at the bottom. The super-exploitation of the Muslim community continued. In 1975 vicious civil war upset for all time the comfortable political balance. Only in 1976 with the Syrian invasion did the fighting stop. But all of the seeds of the conflict remained.
The battle lines were simply frozen and future fighting, unless a socialist alternative to unite the people could be built, was inevitable. Now the voluntary unity of the devastated. Just to recover from the destruction since the Israeli invasion would require a 20% growth rate over the three years until 1985. The poverty and therefore discontent of the Muslims, but also of the poor Christian Arabs, will continue.
In the last analysis the power of any state is exerted through its “armed bodies of men”. The official Lebanese army with its Christian Phalange officer corps can now control only 10% of the country, and this is only with the assistance of US Imperialism. Even this degree of control is dubious. Their army is largely Muslim in composition and has been prevented from fragmenting only by the fact that the Shia and Druze militias against whom they have been fighting did not call upon their co-religionists to desert. The army’s control of Beirut, especially of the Shia areas of West Beirut, hangs by a thread. Outside this territory Lebanon has already disintegrated into a complicated patchwork of areas controlled by. Druze, Phalange, Sunni, Shia and other militias and by the Israeli and Syrian armies.
Because the superpowers do not want the conflict to escalate further, and because the mood within Israel is against extending the war, it is likely that the outcome of the fighting will be the temporary confirmation of this patchwork. As in 1975-76 when the civil war was not fought out to the finish the battle lines will once again be frozen. Lebanon will be one step closer to disintegration. The survival of any form of central government will be only courtesy of the loud pressures of US gunboats offshore.
Yet this situation could have been averted. Lebanon is a grim reminder to socialists internationally of the potential consequences of failed revolutions. Throughout the Middle East the revolutionary movements of the Arabs have been betrayed time and again by their leaders. In most of these countries, including Syria and Lebanon, the Communist parties at one time had a mass base and had the opportunity to take power. Instead they criminally submerged themselves in treacherous coalitions with national bourgeois forces, or openly supported right wing regimes such as that of the Shah of Iran.
At bottom the fighting in Lebanon stems from the social movements of the poor peasants and the working class. In 1970 a movement of the Muslim population rocked the regime. Again, it was the discontent of the Muslim masses in particular which underlay the civil war of 1975. In each case these movements could not find a class direction. The left wing forces within Lebanon failed to rise above religious sectarianism and present a programme for a socialist Lebanon which could have appealed to all the peoples of the state. The Palestinians both in 1970 and 1975 had the opportunity to forge a close alliance with the downtrodden masses of Lebanon. Instead their leaders attempted to reach a separate agreement with the right wing government, arguing that they were not concerned with the internal affairs of other countries.
Only on a socialist basis can there be a genuinely united Lebanon, can there be peace in this region and can there be an answer to the problem of a homeland for the Palestinians. Within the Middle East, including the Lebanon, there is widespread discontent and opposition to the right wing rulers. In Israel there have recently been widespread strikes, including the unprecedented strike and hunger strike by the country’s 8,500 doctors.
What is required is the socialist programme and perspective of Marxism which could provide the unifying and cutting edge for this discontent. Despite the setback represented by the Lebanese events there is every potential for the emergence of a unified socialist movement in the region. The alternative offered by capitalism is communal strife, civil war, war and the emergence of Lebanons, all over the Middle East.
Last updated: 5.7.2012