November 20, 2023
From Irish Marxism

Buchenwald Concentration Camp survivors arrive in Palestine in 1945.

If ‘it is all very simple. We support the struggle of the oppressed’ it should not be difficult to identify who they are, and usually it isn’t, but not always.  What their oppression consists of is sometimes harder and how it is to be remedied harder still.  When I say harder, I mean that there is usually more dispute about it, not that there is something intrinsically difficult to determine but rather that there are fundamental differences about how it may be remedied, which in turn determines how it is understood.

For example, intersectionality identifies multiple oppressions and their combination but in doing so also identifies multiple oppressors and a hierarchy of oppression that can act to divide the oppressed into competing groups, with no joint and common project to overcome their oppression.  This series of posts deals with national oppression but even here these problems are raised.

Current events in Palestine illustrate some problems.   Jews are among histories victims and their treatment by fascism during the Second World War has become symbolic of their whole history of oppression.  The state of Israel has appropriated this symbolism to assert its legitimacy and rights, except these rights include the claim to Palestine as a state for the Jews, a Jewish state.  This has included the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population, a project that continues to involve dispossession and genocide.  The history of oppression and continued antisemitism against Jews is waved like a shroud to justify the claims of the Zionist movement, which proclaims a political programme and practice that involves oppression of the Palestinians.

These claims were accepted by many and it has taken decades of Palestinian oppression to reverse the sympathy many have had for the Jewish state. It should not have taken so long and stands as a warning against too simple an understanding of oppression and the claims of the oppressed. History is not a tale of good versus evil.

Marxism poses the working class as the force that can create the conditions for the ending of all oppression, whether based on class, sex, race, nationality or religion etc.  Since none of these will be ended without struggle it proposes a political programme to encompass all of them and sets out principles to judge the policies and strategies to pursue them.  As Marx once said, philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.  To change it we have to interpret it correctly.

If we take the two wars currently raging in Gaza and Ukraine we are faced with the prospect of their expansion; so we need to understand the context in which they developed and how they might spread.  The war in Ukraine had not even begun before the United States threatened China by imposing economic sanctions, first by Trump and then by Biden, with warnings that it will intervene militarily in Taiwan.  Biden has now talked about an ‘inflection point’ in history, a decisive turning point affecting the whole world.  

Western powers have invested so much armed support to Ukraine they have admitted running out of some types of ammunition while promising to rectify this through massive rearmament, reminiscent of the build up of arms before the First and Second World Wars. A US general has predicted the possibility of war with China by 2025.

To think, therefore, that the wars in Gaza and Ukraine are unrelated events and are not expressions of the potential for a world-wide catastrophe is to feign woeful ignorance.  A response that starts from identifying the oppressed in Gaza and Ukraine and championing their cause does not get near understanding the stakes involved and what is necessary in response.

The Palestinian people are facing ethnic cleansing that in its purpose and execution is bleeding into genocide.  At a recent Palestine solidarity demonstration in Belfast a Palestinian speaker repeatedly thanked Israel for demonstrating its open commitment to destruction of the Palestinian people and to its murderous character, its dispensing with the normal lies and deception practiced by Western politicians.

This open declaration of barbarism would not be possible without the support of Western imperialism that demonstrates its full agreement to Israeli actions and revealing its own murderous character.  Rule by the capitalist class in most Western countries has ordinarily been based on some level of consent, or at least acquiescence, but their support for Zionist genocide is tearing a veil from the ugly face of capitalism.

This is the reason for the opposition to demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people, because they are objectively, and more and more subjectively, demonstrations against western governments and by this fact western imperialism.  In circumstances where this imperialism, under the hegemony of the United States, threatens ever wider and even greater cataclysmic conflict in pursuit of US hegemony, this threatens the support or acquiescence of their own working classes and thereby US dominance.

As we have said before, the Palestinian struggle is not just about Palestine– the world-wide demonstrations of support are proof of this.  The current slaughter is the continuation of the Zionist project and the Palestinian people are calling for a permanent solution before it completes.  By themselves the Palestinian people cannot prevent it and both an immediate and lasting ceasefire and creation of a free Palestine can only arise from a wider political struggle and revolutionary process.

This involves not only opposition to the Zionist state but to the reactionary Arab regimes that oppress their own people and seek increased collaboration with Israel.  Identifying the Palestinian people as oppressed does not identify how they can be free from oppression.  To be on their side means recognising this by including the vast majority of the Arab people in a struggle against their oppression.  Sweeping away the reactionary Arab rulers also includes disposing of the reactionary leadership of the Palestinian Authority. 

If the ending of one oppression is to succeed, and not to lead to another, it means embracing Jewish workers in Palestine, while also recognising that this necessarily involves the defeat of Zionism, with its project of Jewish subordination of the Palestinians and other Arab populations.  The argument that the possibility of a future oppression means that the current Zionist one must be accommodated or conciliated must be rejected; the possibility of a future oppression can never justify acceptance of current oppression but rather helps define how it should end.

The support given to the Zionist state by western imperialism means that even this is insufficient.  At the end of the day only the defeat of this imperialism, which can only be definitively carried out by its working class, can remove the decisive support available to the Zionist state.  The demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian people are therefore part of the same struggle that must become conscious of its own nature.

This is what imperialism fears most.  I remember being on the million-plus demonstration against the Iraq war in London, alongside many others across the world.  They did not prevent British involvement because the demonstration illustrated that the passive slogan ‘not in my name’ only dissociated the demonstrators from the actions of their governments but, by remaining at simple appeals to their ruling class, did not advance any project to remove them.

We can see from the barbaric oppression of the Palestinians that recognition of their plight as an oppressed people is only the first step.  The next are to understand how this oppression was created, how it persists and how it can be removed only by going beyond appeals to those supporting the oppression to end it.  Already, workers in Barcelona and Belgium have decided to take things into their own hands by blocking the supply of arms to Israel.  The extension of this across the world would be an enormous step towards ending the destruction of Gaza and attacks in the West Bank and against their own ruling class.

The oppression of the Palestinians thus raises many wider questions because it has a long history and involves the rest of the world.  No solution is possible that ignores this history or what is happening elsewhere.  War is an inevitable product of capitalism and these wars are the most recent of the very many wars that it has created, and will continue to create, unless a movement is created not simply to opposes this or that oppression but the system that perpetually creates all of them.

For many young people the oppression of the Palestinian people has opened their eyes to the need for political action to defend an oppressed people but their failure to take similar action in the much bigger war in Ukraine, or to appreciate the potential for even greater conflict, shows that they need to learn the lessons from the failures of their older generations, who opposed oppression but have failed to end it.  So it is not quite ‘all very simple’?

‘We support the struggle of the oppressed’ is good but there is an enormous problem when you oppose western imperialist intervention in Palestine but sit back or support it in Ukraine.

A look at the war in Ukraine is next.

Back to part 1