The situation of the Arab Left is similar to “the phenomenon of the transformation of the Left” on the global scale and a reflection of it. The reason is simple: the Arab Left, as a general rule though with some exceptions, was never a “Left” in the dialectical materialist sense. It has always been a reserved, conservative entity, “reactionary” rather than proactive, “importing” theory rather than producing it, adhering to the “letter of the text” (mainly the text of the Soviet policy!) rather than being an innovative critical thinker.
Below I attempt to dissect the main weaknesses of the Arab Left, as well as the obstacles it faced, and discuss whether there really was an Arab Left at all. This is of special importance since, coming from a Marxist position itself, criticism will help in evolving a revolutionary Left again in the Arab region and the world.
Under the British and French occupation, the division of al-Mashreq al-Arabi (the Arab East, divided by colonialists into the states we know today as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq) took place for many objective reasons:
(a) “Divide and Rule,” a doctrine that is a well-known mechanism for depriving people of the power to change and diverting their political energy into internal channels (channels within the manufactured benign system), thus facilitating the job of the occupier and tremendously impeding any effort towards unifying the Arab masses — the only mechanism that can lead to the defeat of imperialism. Also through this doctrine, colonialist occupation will have a “new function” to undertake as it transforms its image and presumable function from an oppressor to a buffer between internal divisions, a trick that makes the occupation a “necessity.”
(b) Pave the way for the implantation of an imperialist base, a functional entity that can serve imperialism and comprise a material barrier between the Eastern and Western wings of the Arab space. Let us not forget that the greatest attempts for an Arab liberation project started by uniting the Eastern and Western sides of the Arab homeland — Syria and Egypt. That was the case with Saladin, who united Damascus and Egypt in 1174, paving the way for ending the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187. It was also the case with Mohammed Ali Pasha (1769-1848), known for his industrialization and modernization plan to establish a strong state in the Arab region. He united Egypt and Syria and was forced to eliminate his project by the British and Austrian naval attacks. And then Nasser (1918-1970), in his attempt to set up a truly independent sovereign Arab state, also succeeded in unifying Egypt and Syria as a backbone for an Arab unity, but for many reasons, the unity lasted only for less than three years, from 1958 to1961.
(c) Keep these manufactured “states” under continuous subordination to imperialism, since it is impossible to achieve liberation on the level of the manufactured state (lack of resources to establish independent development and lack of political and popular depth to support a liberation project are among other objective reasons for its impossibility).
The climax of the colonialist drive for division and maintenance of the state of subordination was the establishment and legitimization of the Zionist entity (Israel): a racist colonial-settler entity organically and functionally attached to the imperialist powers.
There is no objective reason whatsoever that might convince a leftist to acknowledge and accept the establishment of such an entity; on the contrary, the logic of Marxist theory and its developments concretely leads to conclusions against such an acknowledgement. There is an exception, of course, and that is the case of a Left that is completely mechanical and under the influence of a center that acts more like a superpower than a revolutionary center.
The Soviet Union accepted the U.N.-sponsored Partition Plan of 1947, thus accepting the material manifestation of the Zionist/imperialist project in the Arab region. Subsequently, almost all Arab Communist Parties accepted what the Soviets agreed to without any critical objection! Moreover, there are reports that the Syrian Communist Party, (the most mature of the Arab Communist Parties at the time), having printed its paper with headlines in objection to the proposed Partition Plan, had to throw all that batch in the garbage and print another edition with a reverse position after the Soviet agreement to the plan!
From that point on, Arab Communist Parties had to become a sort of “devil’s advocate,” defending the existence of “Israel,” and fabricating/promoting all sorts of theories about a “unity of the Arab and Jewish working class” in Palestine. That was and remains a theoretical joke that demanded the unity of the oppressed and occupied with their colonial-settler occupiers and oppressors under the banner of “working-class unity” against imperialism!!
Palestinian Communists formed “united” parties composed of Arabs and colonialist-settler Zionists, self-proclaimed Communists, while other Arab Communists maintained a close relationship and sought to coordinate with this Zionist “Left” and still do today.
On March 2006, the Jordanian Communist Party held a coordination meeting with the Israeli Communist Party in Amman, an example of many that may have taken place unbeknownst to others over the years. Yet that meeting, not so strangely, was even a subject of boast in the JCP’s official newspaper! While it is strange enough to be a “Communist” and an “Israeli” at the same time, the two parties obviously had no political conflict, since both of them promote the notion that the occupation of Arab land (1948-occupied land) and the establishing of a functional racist colonial-settler entity on that land is just and acceptable, provided the Zionists give back part of the land (occupied later in 1967) for the Palestinians to establish a fragmented totally subordinate “state,” the so-called “two-state solution,” an unjust proposal for ending the Arab-Zionist struggle that is used for maintaining the status quo through a never-ending “peace process” and pushing the entire world to accept injustice (Israel) as a normal legitimate state of affairs. Both the JCP and the ICP agree on this solution as their strategy, a coincidence that links them up with the mainstream political agenda globally. Even the U.S. and “Israeli” governments seem to be hooked on the “two-state solution,” a strange agreement with “Communist” strategy!
It is ironic that, although Arab Communists were keen on coordinating and forming unified fronts with “Israeli Communists,” a similar effort was not undertaken towards Iranian and Turkish Communists, despite the fact that, unlike “Israelis,” the people of Iran and Turkey are the historic neighbors of Arabs, and they are an integral ally, and an integral part of an anti-imperialist anti-Zionist struggle.
Some of the Arab Communists were pioneers in crafting terms like “political sensibility” and “understanding the balance of powers.” Such terms have become part of the theoretical arsenal for parties and regimes alike who no longer wanted to “liberate Palestine” but rather to follow whatever the Israel/USA couple would put forward, an endeavor that has led us to the pathetic result we see today in Palestine.
The Communists, under the influence of the Soviets, were also the first to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 that further establishes “Israel” as a legitimate state, ordering Arabs to forget about their land occupied before 1967 and terming only Arab land occupied after 1967 as “occupied territories” (under the UN banner, there was no occupation before 1967 — history does not exist before that year).
The Soviet Union tried to push everybody to accept resolution 242. Mjalli Nasrawin, head of the International Relations Department of the Ba’ath Party and member of its National Leadership Board during the 1960s, reports that, in November 1969, the Soviet ambassador in Syria, Nuradin Mukhitdinov, demanded that the party (ruling Syria at that time) accept Resolution 242. Nasrawin recalls that weeks later the party received a letter signed by the Soviet leadership troika Brezhnev, Podgorny, and Kosygin, stating that the Soviets consider the decision not to accept Resolution 242 on Palestine a threat to global peace and that, if the current Ba’th party leadership did not accept this resolution, the Soviets would cease all support for them.
The Ba’th Party leadership did not have to wait long to experience the Soviet cessation of support. In of the 10th Extraordinary National Party Conference in late 1970, Hafez el-Asssad (then the Minister of Defense and leading a pro-242 faction in the Ba’th Party) was voted out of office. Nasrawin recalls that al-Assad immediately left the conference and staged a military coup. Within hours, the Soviet Ambassador met with party leader Salah Jdeid and informed him that, if he accepted Resolution 242, the Soviets would back the leadership of the party; otherwise the Soviets would not intervene. Jdeid refused, and within hours Hafez al-Assad declared “the corrective movement,” his epithet for his military coup against the leadership of his own Ba’th party. Party leaders were all arrested and ended up serving 20-years-plus in jail. Mjalli Nasrawin was released after serving 23 years in prison. Other leaders were not so lucky. Salah Jdeid and Noor ed-Din Atasi left prison for their graves.
It is worth mentioning that the ousted Ba’th Party leadership in 1970 was the democratic progressive leftist element, refusing to eliminate al-Asad and his faction militarily, despite previous knowledge of his intentions, and promoting the necessity of a Marxist theory and practice to become the strategy of the party, as opposed to romantic socialism/nationalism promoted by other factions.
If these were the Soviet demands and pressures on the Ba’th Party, one can imagine their demands and pressures on the Arab Communist Parties regarding the issue of Palestine, the central issue of Arab liberation.
The Arab Communist Parties are not the only ones to blame for their lack of vision and analysis. Self-proclaimed Marxist organizations had also moved away in their strategy from liberation to “two states.” Those are the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The DFLP was a pioneer in proposing “stages” in the struggle for liberation. This paved the way for strategic concessions being portrayed as “necessary stages” in the struggle. The PFLP, having a much more progressive position, and being at the forefront of military resistance at one time in the history of struggle, took some time before it also withdrew into the rhetoric of “stages” and “two states,” now their official political line.
It is clearly seen now (with some exceptions) that the organized Arab Left — Communist Parties, the PFLP, and the DFLP — have all succumbed to “political rationality” and detached themselves from an uncompromising objective theory and struggle, paving the way for the rise of Islamist organizations that still insist on “liberation” and “refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Zionist entity” and practice armed resistance at the same time.
Another major mistake of the Arab Communists was their lack of clarity on the issue of Arab unity. Being a peculiar case in history, Arabs moved directly from the stage of a 600-year-long Ottoman oppression before WWI to the stage of colonialist occupation and division following WWI. It is elementary that fragmentation is a tool of subordination: this is true of the working class (thus the call for unity of the workers), and it is also true of fragmented people who have yet to acquire their national existence, for whom a classical capitalist social structure with its relevant class structure is far from being an objective reality. It is only simple sense that a call for the divided Arab toilers to unite in the struggle against Zionism and imperialism, and against the subordinate client Arab regimes that safeguard this division, breaking the colonialist-drawn division lines, should have been a priority for the Arab Left.
While Arab Communists, driven by a metaphysical Arab-Zionist “workers’ unity” plan, were far away from the main struggle, making no actual effort on the issue of Arab unity as a main propeller for a successful confrontation, pan-Arabist organizations started to evolve into Marxism, proving objectively that Arab unity must have a class nature, must adopt Socialism to accomplish liberation, and must be an anti-chauvinist, all- encompassing secular effort for all the oppressed people in the Arab region. In this sense, the influential Arab Nationalists Movement of the 1950s gave life to the Marxist PFLP, and the Ba’th Party evolved a progressive leftist leadership in Syria ousted by the 1970 right-wing military coup.
The Arab Communists’ position on Palestine and Arab unity, a product of mechanical subordination to the Soviet center and lack of critical theory and analysis, is solid proof that a “Left” was never born in the classical Communist Parties. In fact, those parties hindered and sometimes fought against critical thinkers who came from within the establishment.
This long history has prepared the road to NGO transition for many Communists and Communist Parties in the Arab region, following the “liberal wave” on the global Left after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the elimination of the Soviet Union, the political godfather of the Arab Communist Parties. (Of course, exceptions, like the Lebanese Communist Party, still exist, but the argument concerns general phenomena.) Furthermore, following this line of history will also temper the sense of astonishment that might arise from seeing the collaboration of the Iraqi Communist Party with the U.S. occupiers, and their integration within the occupation-dominated political process, while being backed by other Arab Communist Parties like the Jordanian CP.
It is only logical that the Arab Left is a very weak entity at the moment, divided between two main camps:
1. A classical Communist camp that continues along the political line of its predecessor, with “liberal” additions: promoting a “two-state” solution in Palestine, having a deep faith in imperialist-imposed “democratic processes” such as the one in post-occupation Iraq, joining the agendas of NGOs and accepting their funding, and fighting for its own political existence rather than a political program and ideology. This line is deeply rooted in historical organization (of Communist Parties and similar structures);
2. A critical neo-Marxist camp that, although present and active, is unorganized and divided, mainly because it is comprised of individuals who left the classical official structures without finding an alternative or building one.
Although I don’t like the term personally, and prefer the term “Unity Left,” the critical neo-Marxist camp is often referred to as “Nationalist Left,” opposed to the liberal “Democratic Left” (a malformed equivalent of Europe’s Social Democrats) or the classical “Communist Left.”
This new critical Left has clear views on
(a) Palestine — the core of the Arab liberation struggle and not a mere Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an uncompromised struggle for existence between the Arab liberation project and the Zionist/imperialist project, cannot be resolved by “political processes” and cannot be resolved by maintaining a Zionist entity on any part of Arab land;
(b) Iraq — not recognizing U.S. occupation and any political process that follows from it);
(c) Resistance — unconditional support to all forms of resistance, including armed resistance;
(d) Unity of the Arab struggle — the impossibility of liberation on the level of the weak, subordinate colonially-manufactured current Arab state.
(e) Necessity of forming anti-Imperialist fronts based on clear political strategies with forces that share this approach though not particularly leftist (like Islamists, nationalists, etc.).
Through a polarization between those two camps — an effort that should extend globally on the basis of political clarity — a new radical, militant, clear and revolutionary Left can be born, and again become a key player in the liberation process, in the Arab region, and the world.
Hisham Bustani is the Secretary of the Socialist Thought Forum in Jordan, and a member of the Coordination Committee of the Resistant Arab People’s Alliance. This article first appeared in Italian in the progressive magazine Senza Censura, No. 24, November 2007.