How does a group like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), describing itself as revolutionary socialist, end up rationalising the actions of an anti-working class organisation like Hamas? The answer lies in their decades-long failure to adopt a consistent class approach to national liberation struggles, argues JIM HORTON, making a contribution to the debate on the way out of the endless cycle of bloodshed in the Middle East.
The ferocious Israeli state terror currently being inflicted on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where tens of thousands of civilians, including thousands of children, have been killed following the horrific attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians on 7 October, has brought into sharp focus the dangers of not adopting a class approach to the situation in the Middle East.
Last year, before the 7 October events, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) published an updated edition of its 2014 pamphlet, Palestine: Resistance, Revolution and the Struggle for Freedom, saying it “goes beyond the headlines of the moment” and asking: “How can the Palestinians win justice and end the occupation for good?”.[i] The SWP’s approach, however, makes it incapable of answering that question.
Other than a call at the end for readers to join the SWP, there is no mention of the need for either workers, socialist or revolutionary parties to be established in the Middle East. Hamas though is referenced 38 times. This gives a hint of the non-socialist solution proposed, and the social forces the SWP believes can help with it.
The pamphlet states: “We unconditionally support Hamas when it is engaged in military or non-military struggles against Israel”. So far removed is the SWP from the approach of Marxism that its unconditional support for Hamas has culminated in not only its failure to condemn, or even criticise, the brutal Hamas-led assault on Israeli civilians on 7 October, but two days after the atrocities the SWP carried an article titled: “Rejoice as Palestinian resistance humiliates racist Israel”.[ii]
It is one matter to report on why many Palestinians would have viewed the events of 7 October as a victory against the might of the Israeli state, given decades of oppression and recent Israeli state provocations, though many Palestinians would also have dreaded the inevitable consequences. It is quite another for the SWP to not only fail to criticise but to take delight in the killing of civilians, including children, by Hamas.
The SWP dismisses critics of the action of Hamas as engaging in ‘moral equivalence’, but Marxists have never celebrated the deaths of innocent people in any conflict. We understand that in any war, between nations or classes, there will be civilian casualties, but we oppose the deliberate targeting of civilians or non-combatants.
The methods of terrorism adopted by organisations like Hamas give the impression that liberation can be achieved while relegating the role of workers to mere spectators. It is an abandonment of the class struggle and signifies acts of desperation for many of the Palestinians who turn to those methods. Marxists are not pacifists; we support the right of oppressed peoples across the globe, including the Palestinians, to use arms to defend themselves against the violence of their oppressors, including carrying out actions against the infrastructure and military personnel of the oppression. But Marxism has never sanctioned the targeting of civilians.
In 1857 Karl Marx wrote about an Indian revolt against British colonialism, started by a mutiny of Indian soldiers, ‘Sepoys’, in which 6,000 soldiers and colonial settlers were killed, including women and children. The British state exacted bloody revenge on the Indian population, leaving 800,000 dead from militarily retribution and subsequent famines and epidemics. Challenging the hypocrisy of the British ruling class and its condemnation of the killings of British civilians, Marx put the brutality of the revolt into perspective: “However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule”.[iii] However, Marx did not glorify the killings of British civilians by the Sepoys, he instead described the murder of them as outrages, and the methods of the Sepoys as “appalling, hideous, ineffable”. The contrast with the SWP could not be starker.
National liberation struggle
In order to sustain its praise for the actions of Hamas the SWP conflates justified backing for the struggle of the Palestinians for national liberation with unjustified support for the methods of Hamas. But for Marxists, supporting the resistance of the oppressed does not mean supporting the actions of any group claiming to represent the oppressed regardless of its politics and methods. The SWP disagrees. After the events of 7 October, it declared: “We are for the Palestinian resistance always and everywhere, even if [Hamas] does not accept our views on other matters. Anything less is a collapse into pro-imperialism”.[iv] On the basis of this reasoning Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were all pro-imperialist!
One hundred years ago, Lenin explained that Marxists should support bourgeois liberation movements “only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organising in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited”. Lenin added that if these conditions do not exist, then Marxists must combat the bourgeois leadership of those movements.[v] Today there are no bourgeois liberation leaders that meet Lenin’s criteria for support, including the petty-bourgeois leaders of Hamas.
In its pamphlet the SWP claims that Hamas “weakens the Zionist state and terrifies the Arab regimes and the United States and therefore strengthens the potential for class struggle in the Arab states against this imperialist system”. This ignores the fact that Hamas is pro-capitalist and itself fears the potential for class struggle. Moreover, its actions, supported by the capitalist regimes in Iran and Syria, actually cut across the potential to forge working class movements and the fight for a socialist solution which is the only way out of the current nightmare. Also, it is simplistic to argue that the actions of Hamas weaken the Israeli state. The attack on 7 October struck a blow to the prestige of the Israeli capitalist class and its political representatives and military leaders, the political ramifications of which will be felt for years to come, but Israel’s military machine and resolve to defend its borders are far from weakened. For Hamas, its capacity to pursue its campaign will be diminished for a period, while the conditions of the Palestinian masses are being made even more unbearable in what is left of the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.
“The crisis of Palestinian nationalism is now more clearly a problem of class than at any time since the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)” writes the SWP in its pamphlet. The crisis of Palestinian nationalism has always been an issue of class, but while the pamphlet calls for “the building of independent revolutionary movements against the Arab regimes”, it makes no reference to the need for workers to establish their own independent parties based on a programme for the socialist transformation of society, the absence of which was a key factor in the eventual defeat of the revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East in 2011.
The Palestinian working class and poor also need to take democratic control of their struggle, building a socialist intifada through the establishment of grassroots committees to organise defence and a mass struggle against the occupation.
Hamas: anti-working class
Hamas is based on right wing, clerical, anti-working class, pro-capitalist politics. In an article on 14 October the SWP acknowledged it had disagreements “with Hamas over class politics, women’s and LGBT+ rights”. A month later though, in its article titled ‘What are the roots of Hamas’ mass support in Gaza?’[vi], a one-sided analysis is presented of Hamas as a benign organisation that “runs nurseries, soup kitchens, libraries, sporting clubs, a television channel and a children’s magazine”, while ignoring the repressive side of Hamas’s rule.
In 2022 Amnesty International reported that the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip heavily restricted freedom of expression, association and assembly. Three years earlier a general climate of repression had pervaded in the Gaza Strip following a brutal crackdown by the Hamas government on peaceful protests against the rising cost of living. Palestinians have been arbitrarily detained by the Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza, with many subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.[vii]
The ‘What are the roots…?’ article points out that in its 1988 covenant Hamas stood explicitly for a future unitary Palestine to be an Islamic state, but tries to reassure readers by saying that stated aim was removed from the 2017 updated covenant. The article avoids criticism of Hamas on equality issues, instead stating: “In the group’s founding text the role of women within the movement was restricted to raising children. This was taken out in 2017”. The author also refers to Jamila al-Shanti becoming “the first woman to be appointed to the group’s political bureau” in 2021, to argue that Hamas has shifted on equality for women.
The article adds that the “2017 charter did make one big concession – that there should be a Palestinian state and, by implication, an Israel state too”, with the author making no mention of a call for the “annihilation” of Israel by a Hamas official two weeks before the article was published.[viii]
In its Palestine pamphlet the SWP states that its “unconditional support for Hamas is not uncritical”, but the pamphlet makes no reference at all to Hamas’s reactionary anti-working class, anti-equality politics. There can be no dispute that the ideology of Hamas pits it against workers’ democracy and trade union and employment rights, against equality for women, and against non-discrimination of LGBTQ+ people, yet the SWP argues: “We don’t make our support for Hamas against Zionism and imperialism conditional on their adoption of a socialist position around these issues”.[ix] One does not have to demand Hamas adopts a socialist position on them to make clear our opposition to Hamas’s suppression of workers’ democracy, the subjugation of women and the repression of the LGBTQ+ community.
In any event, as the quote from Lenin above makes clear, Marxists have never made solidarity with national liberation movements and their fight against imperialism conditional on the leadership of such movements adopting a socialist programme. However, Marxists will not support a leadership that suppresses the capacity of the working class to establish its own independent democratic organisations, whether trade union, community or political party. Likewise, we will not support organisations whose methods divide workers and hinder the task of fighting for a socialist alternative.
This would not be the first time the SWP has ignored what it once described as shibboleths, in order to try to ingratiate itself with Britain’s Muslim community, in a patronising way that takes no account of the class antagonisms within that community.
SWP’s criticisms of Hamas
So what is the nature of the SWP’s criticism of Hamas? The Palestine pamphlet goes through a number of contortions, the conclusions of which bring into question not only the SWP’s rationale for unconditionally supporting the methods of Hamas but also the SWP’s whole approach to resolving the conflicting national interests of the Palestinian and Jewish populations, including its solution of a unitary secular state.
A number of key criticisms start with: “We believe that the movement’s strategies in the struggle to liberate Palestine – like the strategies adopted by Fatah and the Palestinian left before it – have failed and will fail in the future”. It adds: “There is little prospect of armed struggle alone achieving such a victory”. Why then does the SWP continue to unconditionally support the methods of Hamas, knowing such action has “little prospect” of achieving victory?
In 2006 the SWP offered a muddled, unprincipled rationale in its theoretical journal on why it could not condemn terrorist attacks, explaining it would “not be able to intervene in the movement to explain why young Muslims resort to such terrible tactics. Nor will [the SWP] be able to offer an alternative that can offer hope to those whose despair pushes them into the dead end of terrorism”.[x] On a theoretical level the SWP appears to accept the Marxist critique of individual terrorism, but in practice, in its newspaper and on demonstrations, not only does it not condemn or publicly criticise the terrorist attacks by groups such as Hamas, it also fails “to offer an alternative that can offer hope”. To continue to unconditionally support Hamas, including its killings of Israeli civilians in October and previously, while acknowledging that such actions will fail to liberate Palestinians, is crass political opportunism.
In its pamphlet the SWP criticises Hamas’s strategy “to associate itself with some of the Arab regimes (even including Egypt until recently), as well as non-Arab regimes, which are reactionary and repress their people and conspire constantly to suppress the Palestinian struggle”. The non-Arab regime referred to is Iran. The SWP correctly explains that this reproduces the strategy of Fatah and the PLO in the past and will not liberate the Palestinians. The SWP further complains that instead of “standing in solidarity with the struggles of the Arab masses who have an interest in getting rid of imperialism and Zionism, Hamas is pushing a strategy of alliance with regimes which cooperate willingly with imperialism and Zionism”.
This fails to explain though that the reason why Hamas forges links with bourgeois regimes in the Middle East is because it not only seeks their patronage, but it has organically been part of the aspiring capitalist class in the Gaza Strip and desired to establish an independent Palestine as a capitalist state. Any state established by Hamas would not be the democratic, secular state desired by the SWP and would not be able to satisfy the economic demands of the Palestinian masses, issues not addressed by the SWP.
These facts also explain other aspects of Hamas which trouble the SWP. It complains in its pamphlet that “despite the extraordinary heroism of Hamas fighters… Hamas adopts an elitist approach to the Palestinians” which sees “the Palestinian people as tools whose role is limited to supporting the armed struggle and obedience to the revolutionary leadership rather than active participants in the development of a strategy of resistance and in decision-making”. This approach “weakens the capacities of mass resistance in the long term in the face of an enemy whose weapons are becoming more lethal day by day”.
This elitist approach lies at the very core of the methods and the class character of organisations like Hamas, which fear the mobilisation of the masses they claim to represent and act for. Such an organisation is incapable of achieving genuine democratic liberation for the Palestinian masses.
Contrary to the SWP’s view, its criticisms of Hamas are not secondary issues. They show that Hamas is a barrier to the Palestinians succeeding in their struggle for national liberation and to successful revolutions by the masses across the Middle East to overthrow despotic regimes. Yet this does not stop the SWP from giving unconditional support to all the actions of Hamas. In essence, the SWP criticises, though rarely, Hamas on the core issues which will determine the fate of the Palestinian struggle and the fight against capitalism, while unconditionally supporting terror methods it knows cannot succeed.
The SWP’s political opportunism is astounding. It acknowledges in its pamphlet that in relation to Palestinian workers and youth, it “will not be easy to later win the argument not to trust those [Hamas] who have led the movement for decades”. The task would be easier of course if the SWP had from the beginning warned Palestinian workers and youth not to trust the politics and methods of Hamas. But it views that as a problem for later. Today unconditional support is required.
The Israeli working class
As well as counterposed to mass struggle, the terror tactics of Hamas give the Israeli state a pretext to step up vicious repression against the Palestinians and they drive Israeli Jewish workers behind their ruling class rather than encouraging class struggle in Israel against capitalism.
The mass protests in Israel against the government of Benjamin Netanyahu last year, which included 10,000 military reservists withdrawing from service, have been replaced by mass trauma at a perceived existential threat. There is widespread support among Israeli Jews for military action to crush Hamas, with most believing that the terrible consequences for Palestinian civilians is a necessary price. However, while the national question remains unresolved and resentment festers in both populations, neither Israeli Jews nor the Palestinian masses will experience security or peace.
Any proposed solution addressing the repression and national aspirations of Palestinians, but failing to take into account the national consciousness and security fears of Israeli Jewish workers, would come to grief in a tragedy rooted in and perpetuated by a capitalist system incapable of resolving conflicting national interests.
For the SWP, the Israeli state established in 1948 remains a settler state today, and its citizens, bar its Palestinian population, are colonial settlers, including the 70% of Jews born there in the last 75 years. The designation of all Israeli Jews, who have no other homeland, as colonial settlers allows the SWP to not only justify its support for terror attacks on Israeli citizens, but also informs its proposed solution of “one secular, democratic state”.[xi] This solution is to be achieved by international solidarity through a general boycott of Israel, and a revolt of the Arab masses across the Middle East against their corrupt capitalist regimes, assisting a Palestinian revolution. The Israeli working class is assigned no role in this revolutionary process.
The pamphlet makes a reference to the opening up of “political and social contradictions between Jewish Israelis in 2011 when the revolutions in the Arab world inspired massive social protests inside Israel”, which “did show how even partially successful revolutionary uprisings [in the Middle East] can expose the class divisions within Israeli society”.[xii] It concludes that “the re-emergence of a mass movement in the Arab world would pose new and different questions to Israeli workers”, but does not say what these questions would be, or how they might shape any solution to the conflicting national interests.
Social divisions opened up within Israeli society again last year with massive protests against Netanyahu’s government, including a general strike in March which temporarily forced the government to postpone its reform of the judicial system. At a session on Palestine during the SWP’s 2023 Marxism event, SWP central committee member Sophia Beach was dismissive of those widespread protests, claiming: “These are people who are disagreeing over a strategy on how best to suppress Palestinians” and concluding: “This means the solution to Palestinian oppression does not lie within the borders of Israel”.[xiii] This is consistent with the SWP’s position two years ago when it argued that the “dismantling [of the Israeli state] cannot come from within”[xiv].
The SWP ipso facto places the whole Israeli Jewish population of seven million, the majority of whom are working class, into the counter-revolutionary, anti-socialist camp. If the SWP’s undialectical assessment is correct then its proposed solution of one unitary democratic secular state, with equal rights for both Palestinians and Jews, is an impossibility.
Inevitably, the events of 7 October have set back Jewish working class consciousness in Israel, but those workers will repeatedly come against the reality that capitalist Israel does not serve their interests and is incapable of providing a decent standard of living and keeping them safe – and that military means cannot stop the aspirations and struggle of the Palestinians. If the Israeli Jewish working class is to have economic and national security, they will need to take matters into their own hands. This will necessitate the formation of an independent party for Jewish and Palestinian workers inside Israel and the adoption of a socialist programme.
Stages theory SWP-style
The SWP’s Palestine pamphlet says: “The battle for one state in Palestine is unlikely to be won without the revolutionary transformation of the region. We want to see the struggle for national liberation grow into a struggle for socialism… In this battle, the role of the working class will be decisive”. But in reality, the SWP separates the bourgeois-democratic task of achieving national liberation for the Palestinians, which is limited to the struggle against imperialism and Zionism, from the working class task of establishing a socialist society.
This is clear from the solution advocated in the pamphlet and articles published by the SWP since 7 October, namely that the conflicting national interests of the Palestinians and Israeli Jews will be resolved with the establishment of “one secular, democratic state built on the principle of equal rights for all citizens, including Israeli Jews”. The SWP does not call for the establishment of a unitary socialist state, but a “secular, democratic state”, ie a capitalist state. This is the first stage for the SWP, after which, at some indeterminate point in the future, workers will set up a socialist state. This is akin to the ideas of Stalinism, not Trotskyism.
The pamphlet states: “Thirty years after the Oslo Accords, it is clear that the idea of a Palestinian state emerging alongside Israel is a fantasy”. It then asks the question: “Yet if the Oslo Accords had produced a viable Palestinian state by partially meeting Palestinian demands for the return of refugees, by the sharing of Jerusalem and by the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, would this have brought justice?” The SWP’s answer: “No, such a solution would not address the historic crime on which Israel’s existence is based: the ethnic cleansing of 850,000 Palestinians in 1948. It would also leave in place a racist, colonial state, armed to the teeth by US imperialism, which would act as a permanent threat not only to the Palestinians but to the region as a whole”. The conclusion: “That is why the demand being raised by key Palestinian activists is for one secular, democratic state built on the principle of equal rights for all citizens, including Israeli Jews”.
There is not an ounce of class analysis in this approach. The threat to workers and the poor in “the region as a whole” comes from the continuing existence of capitalism, whether in the guise of the Israeli state, the Iranian and Arab regimes or a future Palestinian state or entity governed by pro-capitalist parties. And under capitalism, with its endemic wealth disparity based on a tiny minority owning and controlling the means of production and finance institutions while millions live in poverty, genuine “equal rights for all citizens” can never be achieved, even in the most democratic countries.
The SWP wants to ignore 75 years of history since partition, a period during which a distinct Israeli national consciousness has developed against the backdrop of repeated episodes of armed conflict which have entrenched mutual distrust and resentment. In pushing for a unitary, democratic secular state from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea, the SWP makes clear that it does not believe Israeli Jews have a right to self-determination, as was confirmed by Sophia Beach at the 2023 Marxism event: “On the question of should socialists support the self-determination of Israelis… in a nutshell, no”.
Marxists opposed the creation of an Israeli state in 1948 in what was then Palestine. This was not merely because from the outset Israel acted as a client state of imperialism. Marxists understood that partition would result in the division of Jewish and Arab workers, an obstacle to them fighting a common class struggle. Peace between Arabs and Jews could only be achieved if the working class turned its guns against the reactionary rulers in its own communities.[xv]
In a travesty of Marxism, the SWP today wants the Palestinian masses, and the wider Arab working class, to turn their guns on the Israeli Jewish working class, with the inevitable consequence of Israeli Jewish workers turning to support the use of their ruling class’s vastly superior weapons on Palestinian workers. And for what? ‘In a nutshell’ the SWP’s position amounts to this: The setting up of a unitary capitalist Palestine, offering Israeli Jews equal rights as individuals but no minority rights collectively as Jews. For the SWP, Israeli workers have nothing to fear from the destruction of the current Israeli state, which is to be achieved by an Arab revolution and the “legitimate” auxiliary terrorist methods of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian militias.
This sows illusions that the current national antagonisms will be eradicated by such a move. As the proposed unitary state does not go beyond the confines of rotten capitalism it would fail to satisfy the desire of Palestinians and Israelis for peace, democracy and prosperity. A similar outcome would apply to two separate states being established under capitalism.
The arguments and points in SWP material sometimes contradict those it has published in other articles, so a coherent position can be hard to fathom. A long piece in its theoretical journal in 2022 contains the point: “It is very unlikely that the current Israeli state can be defeated militarily by the Palestinians, even if acting in concert with neighbouring states”.[xvi] Where does this leave the politics, methods and proposed solution of the SWP? More importantly, what does this mean for the Palestinians and their fight for national liberation? Having taken themselves and their readers down a rabbit hole, the SWP is left without an answer.
The one thing the SWP will not do is recognise that the solution to reconciling conflicting national interests in the region rests with the working class in the occupied territories, Israel and the wider Middle East fighting for a socialist alternative to capitalism.
After decades of military conflict, oppression and terrorist atrocities, mistrust and resentment are entrenched. The idea that Jews or Palestinians could be forcibly assimilated into a unitary state under capitalism, is not only utopian but reactionary.
Under socialism, before the eventual disappearance of borders, Trotsky raised the possibility of “a transitional historical period” of perhaps “two or three generations” in which “a Jewish independent republic” would exist and that the “same possibility will be opened for the Arabs, as for all other scattered nations”[xvii]. This perspective of a solution – for a period of time – of two socialist states, a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine, is still posed today, the more so given the decades of mutual antagonism, compounded by the brutal Israeli state oppression since Trotsky’s time.
[i] SWP Palestine pamphlet, p3
[ii] https://socialistworker.co.uk/international/rejoice-as-palestinian-resistance-humiliates-racist-israel/; and Socialist Worker, Issue 2876
[iii] New York Daily Tribune, 4 September 1857, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/09/16.htm
[iv] SWP website 14 October 2023; SW Issue 2877
[v] The Report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions, 15 July 26, 1920
[vi] SWP website, 14 November 2023
[ix] Socialist Worker, 14 October 2023, Issue 2877
[x] Marxism and terrorism, ISJ 6th April 2006, Issue: 110
[xi] SWP Palestine pamphlet, p28
[xii] SWP Palestine pamphlet, p30
[xiv] SWP website 22 June 2021
[xv] Fourth International, Vol.9 No.3, May 1948