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The New International, August 1946


Albert Gates

The Meaning Of Self-Determination

A Reply to Leon Shields


From New International, Vol.12 No.6, August 1946, pp.181-182. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The problem of Palestine and of Arab-Jewish relations is important not only because the Jewish population of Europe has been decimated and the remaining elements desire to leave the Continent to go to that country, but because in Palestine, the presence of the two populations tests the Marxist policy on national freedom in a nation dominated by imperialism, There are numerous historical reasons why some Jews wish to go to Palestine. However, over a period of many years, despite the agitation of Zionism toward ending the diaspora, the overwhelming number of Jews who had settled all over the world did not respond to it. They adapted themselves to nations and conditions under which they lived. Many supported Zionist activity because they felt that the Jews who wished to return to Palestine should have that right, and not merely the right, but the means to carry out their desire.

The present situation in Palestine does not arise, as Shields asserts, because there are two “distinct nationalities in the country,” but because the European and world situation has made it impossible for the Jews to exist anywhere with any kind of guarantee for their safety. Thus the desire to go to Palestine, which during “normal” capitalist development represented a desire growing out of historical, religious and moral grounds, has to-day assumed the form of necessity. With the world borders closed to the Jews, they have turned to Palestine as a remaining hope for salvation. Assimilation has nothing whatever to do with the question. The Jews are not greatly worried about this problem; what does concern them is to find a place to live without the danger of “extinction” as a people, as human beings.

The criticism of Shields is wrong from the start. The very title of his letter indicates that he does not really understand Marxist principles on the national question and the right of self-determination. For Self-Determination in Palestine: Against the Slogan of Majority Rule, is a travesty of Lenin’s point of view and differs in no essential way from the position of the Zionists or the Hashomer Hatzair. The “left wing” Jews in Palestine are for that kind of self-determination; i.e., they do not want to drive the Arabs from Palestine and they at least give lip service to anti-imperialism. But where these left wingers fall down is in rejecting a policy of genuine equality with respect to the Arab population. For that reason they must ally themselves with British imperialism against genuine national freedom for Palestine.

The Crucial Question

The crucial question for Palestine is the question of the independence of the nation and the establishment of a constituent assembly as an instrument of the movement for freedom from imperialism. Those who seek a solution to the Palestinian question by evading the question of the kind of state which shall rule this peculiarly constituted country, really confess their own bankruptcy or reveal a reactionary bias toward the Arab population. The problem of Palestine cannot be answered with the generality: the socialist revolution (not only in Palestine, but the world socialist revolution!) is the only solution for Palestine and Arab-Jewish relations. That is abstentionism of the worst sort because it is utterly indefensible. It leads to programmatic sterility. A case in point is the series of articles on the Middle East, by T. Cliff, which appeared in three successive issues of the Fourth International. Here, an excellent series of analytical articles ends with a statement that the socialist revolution will in the end solve the Palestinian question. No reference is made to the question of how the national struggle can and must develop, what should be the relations between the Arabs and Jews in this anti-imperialist struggle and what state power should replace the rule of British imperialism. This is the conclusion to a series of articles which contain an excellent summary of the role of British imperialism in the Middle East, the Arab movement, the role of Zionism and its league with the British rulers, and finally the role of the Jews in Palestine itself. But the article of Shields which does deal with this question reveals a dangerous conformance to the prejudices of the Jews toward the Arabs and an acceptance of what is in essence an imperialist attitude of the Jews toward a constituent assembly based upon universal suffrage and majority rule.

The slogan at the head of the Shields article implies two situations which are non-existent: 1. that Palestine is an independent nation; and 2. that the Jews in Palestine are an oppressed minority. Neither of these conditions obtains. Palestine is an oppressed nation in which both the Arabs and the Jews are victims of imperialism. And so Shields says that the trouble with the position advanced by Labor Action is that:

... the Jewish masses cannot be won to a support of this slogan! For “majority rule” at the present time means Arab rule, and this slogan asks the Jews to approach the Arab masses not on a basis of equality, but on a basis of Arab domination of the country!

This is an example of sophistic reasoning. Equality lies precisely in the fact that the majority can exercise its majority. Ancient history aside, the fact is that Palestine is an Arab nation. The return of the Jews to Palestine in recent years has, because of the reactionary attitude of Zionism, allowed the British and the Arab feudal rulers to promote sharp opposition of the Arab people toward this immigration. But it lay within the power of the Jews in Palestine to break down any opposition or prejudice which does exist by an intelligent politics and attitude toward the Arabs who look upon them as a force coming to take their nation and their land from them. Instead of allying themselves with the Arab masses, the Jewish leaders and parties have allied themselves with the British and thus helped to make effective the activity of the Arab feudal leaders. The relationship of population in Palestine is as two to one and not one hundred to one (Germany). This in itself creates a better possibility for a harmonious habitation of the two peoples, provided that the “advanced” Jewish population acts as the friend of the Arab and does not appear to them as usurpers.

The heart of the problem exists precisely in the fact that “... no party has emerged in Palestine based on the concept of majority rule.” Thus the Jews appear to the Arabs as a force which seeks domination over the country; certainly they do not present themselves as a force for the liberation of the nation from imperialism.

Majority Rule

It becomes utterly incomprehensible then, why Shields is opposed to the bi-national state which aims for the establishment of Arab-Jewish equality in state rule despite the fact that the Arabs outnumber the Jews by two to one. Look to what absurdity Shields is driven. He is compelled to say that Labor Action has gone over to the opposite extreme and “... demands Arab rule by virtue of the fact that they constitute the majority of the Palestine population.” Could there be any better reason for our position? We are then advised that between the bi-national state and real democracy, the “Jewish left wingers will choose Yaari [the theoretician of the bi-national state].”

Shields then seeks to explain this, recognizing that it is actually a reactionary position which the Jews hold, by saying that the interpretation of the Jews and Yaari on the bi-national state is different, that the former recognize it as a means of establishing full national rights for both nationalities! That means that Yaari looks upon it as a means of establishing Jewish domination over the Arabs! That is correct. That is what the bi-national state actually means. It counts upon the superior development of the Jews, their capital and their alignment with British capital to establish that domination until the day arrives when the Jews become a numerical majority in the land and magnanimously accord the Arabs their full rights!

The position of Shields is made no better when he writes: “The slogan of majority rule which is advanced as the most important ‘democratic’ demand , would certainly gain the confidence of the Arabs, but must of necessity leave the Jewish masses cold.” That is what is wrong in the Palestinian situation. The Jews of Palestine have a reactionary attitude toward the Arab masses who suffer from centuries of feudal relations and exploitation. The Jews could appear before them as liberators if they adopted a correct policy free of imperialist overtones. There is something wrong with the ideology of Jews. The policy of Zionist imperialism dominates their minds and this condition becomes doubly serious precisely because “no party has emerged in Palestine based upon the concept of majority rule.” Both the example of Ireland and the reference to Lenin are utterly without significance in the way Shields attempts to use them. In the case of Ireland particularly, we have a clear example of imperialist rule and oppression. There was no joint Irish-British population in the land and why Shields even refers to it is a mystery.

Shields is defending a reactionary position, one which yields to reactionary pressure. The fact that the Jews are against a constituent assembly, based on universal suffrage and majority rule, is no reason for a Marxist to reject such a slogan. On the contrary, it then becomes his duty to advocate it all the more determinedly and to patiently explain to the Jewish people why it is necessary to accept and advocate this position as the means of solving their own problem as well as that of the Arab masses. Revolutionary socialists are the only genuine democrats. That is why they must be the champions of the policy advocated by the Workers Party in the Palestinian situation. Any other position leads one directly toward an anti-Arab position on the most reactionary grounds of Jewish economic, political and social superiority, or on the ground that the Jews are “more civilized” than the Arabs. A revolutionist who succumbs to that kind of position, or rejects a correct slogan for Palestine on the grounds that the Jewish organizations, leaders, and even the majority of the people are against it, reflects the pressure of reaction and not progress.

We do not believe that the antagonisms between the Jewish and Arab masses are quite what the Zionist, British and Arab feudal lords describe them. On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that these people can live in harmony with one another provided a correct relationship is established between them. An answer is provided in the position which we advocate. To be sure, it is not the whole answer to the question, but it is the basis upon which the whole answer, i.e., socialism, can be given.


Footnote by ETOL

1. Albert Gates was the pseudonym of Albert Glotzer.

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