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Zionism's Socialist Dilemma - Part II

Zionism’s Socialist Dilemma:
Nationalism, Colonization, and Class Struggle
(Continued... See Part I)

The Judaization of the Socialist Protest: Nahman Syrkin

In The Jewish Problem and the Socialist-Jewish State[21], Syrkin argues – loosely echoing Marx – that anti-Semitism pervades society because it is a product of the class structure. He also points out that anti-Semitism reaches its peak in declining classes, the middle class and the peasant class; the middle class suffers most from Jewish competition. Furthermore, the hostility of these classes is not based on national or religious lines but on “egotism, the lust for Jewish money, the desire to undermine the Jewish competitor and expel him from the land.”[22]

Syrkin insists that a “classless society and national sovereignty are the only means of solving the Jewish problem completely.”[23] He argues that such social revolution and cessation of class struggle would normalize the relationship of Jews and their environment. As such, Jews should join the proletariat. Yet here he strongly condemns Jewish socialists in Western Europe who have accepted assimilation. Socialism will, moreover, eliminate the possibility of oppression of one nation by another. Here he insists that socialism is the “opponent of all those conspiring to suppress or destroy the national character of a people. The socialist movement … supports all attempts of suppressed peoples to free themselves.”[24] Thus socialists are the bearers of the idea of national emancipation. It is important to point out here that from a Marxist point of view nationalism, which is the mouthpiece of national emancipation and unification, is tolerable only in so far as it hides behind it economic interests, growth and rapid development of which would result in the demise of bourgeois society and by extension the slogans under which it operates.

But for Jews, he points out, this has not been the case, as Jewish socialists have accepted assimilation. This he criticizes, by saying: “If Jewish socialism … wants to rise to the level of real moral protest, then it must acknowledge and proclaim in public that the Jewish protest is its basic motif.”[25] This could be understood as a call for the “nationalization”/“Judaization” of the socialist cause.

In a manner that can be considered to be self-contradictory, Syrkin argues that “Jewish socialism should be placed on the same level with proletarian socialism.”[26] Yet such an enormous argument is left unelaborated. The placement of Jewish socialism – with the Jewish protest occupying its center – on par with proletarian socialism contains the tacit implication that the former is defined in distinction from rather than as belonging to the latter. Furthermore, the insistence on the specifically Jewish (i.e. spiritual/religious/national) element renders Syrkin a supporter of, at best, socialist Judaism (as opposed to socialism endorsed by the Jewish masses). Socialism is thus considered to be the variable rather than the constant, and the position of the constant is occupied by Judaism and Jewish consciousness and struggle. Further complicating the nation-class dynamic, Syrkin insists that socialism can become the possession of all Jews of all classes, since Jewish suffering affects every class of Jewry. Such an argument is not accurate; it assumes that Jewish suffering – even if genuinely impacting all classes of Jewry – elicits similar reactions and leads all classes to follow one movement or support one ideology. This is not true for upper-classes, which despite observing the suffering of lower-class Jews with concern (due to the threat it poses to their own position in society), do not endorse a proletarian revolution; nor is it true for the middle bourgeoisie, who despite a constant loss in their economic and social standing attempt to hold on to the last vestiges of their previous state.

Moreover, after insisting that Jewish socialist struggle is the only salvation of Jewry, Syrkin argues that the situation of Jewry at present cannot be improved through the socialist struggle. Such struggle would not help the Jewish middle class at all, and would not help the Jewish proletariat as much as it would help the general proletariat. It appears that Syrkin makes such statements with the purpose of validating the claim that the peculiar Jewish position determines the outcome of any struggle, and as such a specifically Jewish protest and struggle must be undertaken, even if under the auspices of the socialist movement.h statements with the purpose of validating the claim that the peculiar Jewish position determines the outcome of any struggl

Finally, non-Zionist attempts to solve the Jewish problem are utopian. Indeed, this is the first time in his article that Syrkin mentions the issue of Zionism and its compatibility with class struggle. He refers to arguments that dismiss the compatibility of these two as “foolish”, arguing that the Jewish proletariat has no reason to reject Zionism merely because other classes of Jewry have accepted it for national and ideological reasons. Such an assertion only confirms Syrkin’s prioritization of the national cause over the socialist struggle. Indeed, Syrkin’s language – for example references to the “outside enemy” – is reminiscent of ultra-nationalism rather than socialist Zionism. As Marx argued, given the economic determinants of Jews’ position in their societies, any solution must address the economic aspects first and foremost. The fundamental contradiction in Syrkin’s perspective is, on the one hand his insistence that the Jews’ economic position gives rise to anti-Semitism, and on the other, his willingness to second class struggle to the national struggle. He concludes the article by pointing out that a Jewish state based on capitalism should and would be opposed by the Jewish proletariat. Such a claim is moot for the simple fact that if facing the “outside enemy” is to take priority over (cross-ethnic) class struggle, capitalism could be established under the pretext of and utilizing the situational factors of a looming conflict. Indeed, it is under similar slogans that bourgeois society seeks to acquire larger markets and consolidate its grip on territories.

Normalization versus Revolution: Ber Borochov

Two pieces of work produced by this socialist-Zionist thinker will be examined; the first is dated 1905, while the second a year later. Although brief, these two pieces provide the raw material for an in-depth discussion of the manner in which the national and class struggles are allegedly intertwined. It is worth pointing out that, unlike Syrkin, Borochov’s analysis resembles to a large extent – though not fully – Marx’s views on the national question and its role in a proletarian revolution. Moreover, its content reflects a deeper understanding of the implications of a socialist struggle, while its style is one of referral to rather than distancing from and ignorance of Marx’s writings.

In The National Question and the Class Struggle[27] Borochov argues that that national struggle – like class struggle – is waged for the means of production as well as the conditions of production, rather than for the preservation of cultural values. This struggle, though often conducted under the banner of spiritual slogans, is nevertheless purely economic in its interests. Every nationality has a number of tools fashioned in order to serve the purpose of the preservation of its resources. Hence it is false to assume that the proletariat has no relation to the national wealth and has no national feelings and interests. Moreover, the territory is of great value for the proletariat – as it is for the bourgeoisie in search of larger markets – in that it is a place in which to work. Without a place to work, there can be no class struggle. This then is the central theme in the discussion of Jewish socialism, which is nevertheless not undertaken in this piece.

Borochov continues by arguing that for oppressed nationalities (and one can only assume that he considered Jews an oppressed nationality) the system of production is subject to abnormal conditions, such as deprivation of territory and organs of national preservation. Such conditions harmonize the interests of the members of the nation (this implies that according to him Zionism is merely the logical extension of the economic concerns of the deprived Jews of Europe, a claim that is, however, unsubstantiated, given the strictly bourgeois character of Zionism and its treatment of the working masses as merely tools for the establishment of a bourgeois state in Palestine[28]). In such a case the influence of conditions and relations of production, as well as class struggle, is lessened. Thus the members of the nation become interested in national self-determination. It is in this struggle that the class structure manifests itself. Nationalism does not obscure class consciousness. Rather, genuine nationalism of the revolutionary proletariat strives to acquire normal conditions of production for the nation, and a normal labor and class struggle base for the proletariat. It is interesting to note that the quest for revolution (proletarian class struggle) has, in the socialist-Zionist context, always clashed with the quest for normalcy (represented by the nation-state), culminating in the victory of the latter over the former and the necessity of the “reification of Labor Zionism.”[29] Ben-Gurion expressed the view that class interests are identical with national interests[30], yet this similarity was only observed in so far as “the way to achieve national unity is via class warfare”[31] rather than the other way around, namely the utilization of national existence for the achievement of a socialist revolution. In this, Ben-Gurion, one of the prominent figures in the history of Zionism, opposed Borochov. Indeed, the rejection of Borochov and the decline and disappearance of the Po’alei Zion movement/party[32] stemmed from a conscious ideological decision, whereby "[t]he founders realized at an early stage that there was a contradiction between socialism and nationalism, and since the first meaning of Zionism was the building of the nation, one had to make a decision.”[33] As Lockman points out,

“those parties which adhered to Zionism … were compelled, by the logic of their very presence and goals in Palestine, to compromise their socialist principles one by one when they came into conflict with the demands of Zionist colonization … those parties which refused any compromise with Zionism found themselves relatively isolated, cut off from the majority of the Jews of the Yishuv, and later the state, and this of course severely limited the possibilities of playing a prominent role in the class struggle.”[34]

Poa’lei Zion cannot be considered to have been within the ranks of the rejectionists referred to by Lockman, although the complexity of ideological and strategic clashes resulted in its isolation. For example, Lockman refers to Borochov’s reasoning in supporting class solidarity between Jewish and Arab workers, which has as its end the strengthening of Hebrew labour in Palestine.[35] An examination of the platform of the Poa’lei Zion party (Our Platform[36]), which Borochov wrote only a year after his The National Question and the Class Struggle, would provide more insight into the reasoning put forth by Borochov, especially in what pertains to the proletarianization of Zionism.

Borochov argues that every class has national interests differing from the national interests of other classes. National movements do not transcend class divisions. This assertion not only stands firmly against Syrkin’s all-encompassing view of socialism and nationalism (i.e. the argument that socialism can become the possession of Jews of all classes), it also contradicts Borochov’s assertion only a year before that the conditions in which oppressed nationalities live force the harmonization of national interests for all classes of Jewry. In this piece, a more realistic and socialist explanation is presented, whereby the lumping-together of all classes under the national umbrella is abandoned. This is in tune with Marxist analyses, which see in nationalism a slogan that reflects bourgeois interests rather than the interests and support of all classes of a nation.

The platform is an interesting piece on the dynamics of Jewish life and economic conditions outside Palestine, and the scheme with which Jewish life would operate in the context of the colonization of “undeveloped countries”. The first has already been discussed as part of the process of contextualizing the framework of analysis. The second is discussed briefly by Borochov. The first point that is emphasized is the emigration of the petty bourgeoisie, who become proletarianized in the land of their settlement/colonization. Such a process would be activated thanks to the restriction of immigration to the chosen territory only for Jews, and the irrelevance of big capital given the undeveloped (or at best underdeveloped) conditions. Such conditions would provide a satisfactory market for Jewish petty and middle capital, which would then be utilized to move from an urban to an agricultural economy. ddle capital to find a make a makeounds for the Jewish massnizedssible, but that it ism, and since the feaThe second point is the concentration of Jewish immigration; this is necessary in so far as its absence is a hindrance to the colonization of the undeveloped country of settlement. The third point is the organization and regulation of immigration, which would be carried out by the Jewish proletariat. Finally, the success of Zionism depends on the success of proletarian Zionism, and the success of the latter is “also a step toward socialism.”[37] These three points, while setting the broad lines of the strategy proposed, do not provide much insight into the manner (i.e. steps, policies, etc.) in which it would come into being. Moreover, in so far as it ignores political, social, and economic realities[38] (and the presence of an indigenous population on the chosen land, which cannot be considered to have been undeveloped) and the strategic importance of Palestine for rival empires, it is a utopian piece.

The Synthesis: An Assessment

This section, while not touching on the broader lines of the place of socialism in Zionist thought, has nevertheless presented two distinct (one anti-Marxist and the other Marxist) Zionist perspectives, which while not necessarily being representative of Jewish leftist/socialist thought of the period, nevertheless combine elements that formed the core of both Jewish nationalism and (internationalist) socialism. The attempt at merging these two diverging concepts necessarily implies that no complete adoption of socialism would be possible; nationalism, on the other hand, provides more opportunities for the incorporation of ideologies such as socialism within it, without losing any of its defining characteristics. The question of whether there can ever be a true synthesis of nationalism and socialism whereby the latter preserves its defining characteristics (rather than being transformed into what is commonly referred to as “national/ist socialism”) would have to be answered in the negative, especially if one is to consider the practical aspects of the two. Nationalism and socialism might co-exist in thought/ideology only as much as one is the function of the other (i.e. nationalism explained in terms of socialism, means and conditions of production, and industrialization / socialism as a tool for the advancement of nationalist agendas or changes in the social/economic division of labour). Here it is important to point out that the complexity of the synthesis question/dilemma stems mainly from the customization of the definition of socialism, which indeed makes the synthesis question irrelevant to begin with. Indeed, Katznelson’s argument against the mechanical adoption of socialism and nationalism is a perfect example of this.[39] It is safe to conclude that if one is to take into account the ideological clash, no genuine synthesis between the two (and in particular Zionism and socialism) has been achieved. Furthermore, to answer the question of whether socialism was merely a mobilizing myth requires further in-depth analysis. It is necessary to point out, however, that some intellectuals and leaders were indeed convinced socialists (though the brand of socialism they believed in might not have coincided with the Marxist perspective). Yet one can argue that the impact of the colonization of Palestine by Jewish finance capital (led by the Rothschilds), which was taking place just as some of these thinkers were writing pieces on the role of socialism (and the process of proletarianization) in the Jewish struggle for statehood, was ignored.[40] It would be difficult to dismiss this as merely an innocent failure, given the implications this would have not in terms of socialism as an ideology per se, but in terms of the welfare of the Jewish proletariat, which the socialist-Zionists claimed to be concerned with.

III – Concluding Remarks: Labour Relations in Pre-1948 Palestine

This section will deal briefly with the practical aspects of the clash between nationalism (both Jewish and Palestinian Arab) with a general overview of Jewish-Arab labour relations. It will provide a final assessment of whether there could have been, at any stage prior to 1948 a real possibility for joint class struggle.

Three themes dominate the Zionist struggle: conquest of the land, conquest of labour, and produce of the land.[41] The three are intricately related. The first provides not only a living space and a territory for organized Jewish life, but also Jewish labour and possession of the resources and means of production. The second relates to the attempt to create a Jewish working class by means of forcing Jewish employers to hire Jewish rather than cheaper Arab labour. The third relates to the boycott of Arab goods for the stimulation of Jewish agriculture and industry. Of the three, the theme that is most relevant to this discussion is the conquest of labour. This policy, despite being in contradiction to the principles of class struggle generally espoused by the left, was nevertheless wholeheartedly adopted for the simple reason that it was in the national (Jewish) interest to do so.[42] Indeed, this was to be a recursive self-destructive loop, whereby the tenser the situation became the more difficult – predictably so – the possibilities for any meaningful cooperation between Jewish and Arab workers. The fact that there were two national claims to the same land, and that these national claims were manipulated by the elites to preclude any such cooperation (let alone organized joint class struggle) sealed the fate of a socialist revolution in Palestine. The working class in the country split in two, competing for control over the material conditions, which would enhance its position vis-à-vis the other.

Of all the parties in pre-1948 Palestine, the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP) was the most likely candidate for providing the bases for and leading the socialist struggle. Despite the fact that there was no lack of Jewish socialist (to varying degrees on the ideological scale) parties, these were nevertheless Zionist at the core (as mentioned before) and in membership. The PCP, on the other hand, was unique, for it was, throughout the period that witnessed an increase in nationalist rhetoric and strife and the diminishing of the importance accorded to a proletarian revolution in socialist intellectual and leadership circles, the only party whose membership extended to and was sought by Jews and Arabs alike. Yet the PCP faced an uphill struggle, not only in maintaining its detachment from the reactionary nationalist strife being shaped, but also in gaining the sympathy and support of Jewish immigrants, for the abandonment of Zionism by these would have meant the elimination of their reason for being in Palestine.[43] A discussion of the internal politics and external relations of the PCP is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is important to note the two major incidents that fundamentally altered the position and efficacy of the PCP. While distrust was quickly making it into the ranks of the PCP, it was the Arab revolt of 1936-1939 that dealt the biggest blow to the PCP and by extension the future of socialism in Palestine. The party’s involvement in the revolt, however justified it might have been from an ideological viewpoint, nevertheless had practical repercussions, resulting in the further deterioration of relations between Arabs and Jews, the effective destruction of party unity, and the division (though not split) of the party into national blocs. Contrary to the role that the party’s position on the revolt had played in the estrangement of its Jewish leadership and membership, such a position in fact boosted the party’s standing in the Arab community. The development of the Palestine problem only spelled more trouble for the PCP, which despite preserving itself in the aftermath of the revolt, had nevertheless become irrelevant. The internal division along national lines merely reinforced the identification of each side with its respective national movement and aspirations.[44] The damages of the split in the revolt period would prove to be irreversible, both for the PCP and for socialist aspirations for a genuine, non-nationalist proletarian revolution. The inability of the PCP to bring about any real change stemmed from a number of factors: internal organizational failures, situational factors (i.e. domestic and imperial politics), and structural complexities and complications (i.e. the relations of production in both Jewish and Arab communities, especially the latter). Had the timing of the ripening of Arab class consciousness coincided with Jewish skepticism and aloofness at the idea of Zionism, there could have been a much larger probability of the success of a joint class movement. Yet of all the factors involved in eliminating the possibility of the success of such a scenario, nationalism has been the most destructive. Palestine has provided the grounds for the testing of the compatibility and synthesis of nationalism and socialism. The results have been nothing short of explosive. Nationalism has not only confined each group to its side, but its combination with and alleged attempts at the implementation of socialist ideals have been a remarkable failure.

[21] Arthur Hertzberg, ed. The Zionist idea: a historical analysis and reader (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 333-350.

[22] Ibid., 339.

[23] Ibid., 340.

[24] Ibid., 342.

[25] Ibid., 344.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Hertzberg, 355-360.

[28] While it would be wrong to generalize about Zionist's intentions based on the writings of a few (although the course of the development of the enterprise and the economic/class structure it set up for the Jewish state certainly demonstrates bourgeois intentions), nevertheless it is worth mentioning Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s view of socialism; for Jabotinsky, a socialist order would result in a halt in social reforms, a cessation of man's struggle for betterment and improvement. Moreover, he emphasizes the importance of the individual and individualism, which are the basis of human aspirations and the utilization of talents for the purposes of progress. Humanity, he believed, was not marching towards socialism but rather in the opposite direction. He points out that “if there is a class bearing the destiny of the future (an assumption that we the bourgeoisie, who deplore class ideology, do not believe in, for we believe in a nation above classes, and in mankind above classes); if there is such a class, it is we the bourgeoisie ... the standard-bearers of individualism.” See Mordechai Sarig, ed, The Political and Social Philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky: Selected Writings. Trans. Shimshon Feder (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1999), 85. For more on Jabotinsky’s views of socialism, see Sarig, 78-79, 142-144. Also notable is the response of Ben-Gurion to Jabotinsky’s criticism, a formulation that places Zionism before class politics. See Mitchel Cohen, “Between Revolution and Normalcy: Social Class in Zionist Political Thinking.” Modern Judaism 12.3 (October 1992), 261.

[29] Cohen, 267.

[30] Ben-Gurion's view was that a synthesis of Zionism and socialism was possible, but only in Eretz Israel, where foreign influences would not pose any limitations. See Sternhell, 92-93.

[31] Sternhell, 225.

[32] For a discussion and analysis of the causes of the elimination of Po’alei Zion, see Sternhell, 92-106.

[33] Ibid., 89.

[34] Zachary Lockman, “The Left in Israel: Zionism vs. Socialism.” MERIP Reports 49 (July 1976), 3. Also see Ben Halpern and Jehuda Reinharz, “Nationalism and Jewish Socialism: The Early Years.” Modern Judaism, 8.3 (October 1988), 243.

[35] Ibid., 4.

[36] Hertzberg, 360-366.

[37] Ibid., 366.

[38] For an excellent study on the process of immigration, proletarianization, and subsequent deproletarianization of the Jewish working class in Palestine, which differs from the large-scale proletarianization predicted and recommended by Borochov, see Amir Ben-Porat, “Immigration, Proletarianization, and Deproletarianization: A Case Study of the Jewish Working Class in Palestine, 1882-1914”. Theory and Society 20.2 (April 1991), 233-258.

[39] In fact, Katznelson refused to even attempt to provide a definition of Zionism and socialism (see Sternhell, 154). Thus, his position was one of adoption of custom (but not properly defined) concepts (and passing them off as socialism, nationalism, etc.) and the arrival to “universal” conclusions based on these. Such fallacious and unsound thinking characterizes much of the socialist-Zionist intellectual sphere.

[40] For more details on Labour’s (and leftists thinkers’) reactions to Zionist colonization, see Stephen Halbrook, “The Class Origins of Zionist Ideology.” Journal of Palestine Studies 2.1 (Autumn 1972), 104-106. Also worth noting is the fact that, as Avni-Segre points out, for some time – until the birth of the kibbutz movement – the settlements financed by the Rothschilds relied on Arab labor. Dan Avni-Segre, “Israel: A Society in Transition.” World Politics 21.3 (April 1969), 349-350. For more on Labour Zionism in general, see Lilly Weissbrod, “From Labour Zionism to New Zionism: Ideological Change in Israel.” Theory and Society 10.6 (November 1981), 777-803.

[41] Lockman, 5.

[42] A key argument was that the Jewish people needed to achieve normalization. This could only be done by stimulating productivity, which in turn could be achieved by the transformation of the Jew into a peasant (namely, the idea of proletarianization). Both land (land acquisitions) and labour (growth of Jewish proletariat through preferential employment practices) were crucial in the successful implementation of this objective. See Joel Beinen, “The Palestine Communist Party 1919-1948.” MERIP Reports 55 (March 1977), 4.

[43] Ibid., 7.

[44] Musa Budeiri, The Palestine communist party: Arab and Jew in the struggle for internationalism (London: Ithaca, 1979), 154.

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posted by Angry Anarchist @ 3/26/2007 10:25:00 PM,


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