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Decline and fall: The US SWP’s final embrace of Zionism

Israel blasts Gaza. The SWP’s response to the one-sided slaughter this summer illustrates the political and moral depths to which the group has descended.

By Art Young

September 18, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- At its peak in the 1960s and early 1970s the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the United States was the largest group to the left of the Communist Party and a major pole of attraction for radicalising youth. It was also the most dynamic and creative Marxist organisation in the USA.

The SWP of today bears no resemblance to that organisation. It now consists of a few hundred members and supporters, many of them in their 50s and older, together with a few dozen followers with the same demographic in other countries. Deliberately cutting itself off from most arenas of struggle, the SWP has little influence and few prospects for renewal. Like most left sects, its prime imperative appears to be the perpetuation of the sect and the position of its maximum leader, Jack Barnes.

A distinct feature of the ossification of the SWP has been the group’s tendency to adapt to US imperialism. The latest – and decisive – development along this trajectory is the SWP leadership’s decision, during Israel’s slaughter in Gaza this summer, to embrace the full program of Zionism.

Some background will help to understand the significance of this development.

The days are long past when the SWP played a unique and historic role in building the US movement against the war in Vietnam, thereby contributing to the defeat of US imperialism and the victory of the Vietnamese people. (This story is richly detailed in Out Now by Fred Halstead [1].)

In contrast, today The Militant, the weekly newspaper of the SWP, cheers on the armed forces of Ukraine as they attempt to suppress a rebellion in the eastern part of the country. The civil war, with its widespread destruction and loss of life, has transformed pre-existing divisions in Ukraine into a deep chasm filled with blood that will take many years to overcome. Washington and Kiev bear the primary responsibility for this tragedy. Washington’s objective throughout the crisis has been to use Ukraine as a battering ram to weaken both Ukraine and Russia. In this situation, The Militant’s fulsome pro-Kiev and anti-Russian coverage coincides with that of the mainstream Western media. (Vladimir Putin’s Russian-chauvinist response to the threats has made it much easier for Obama to achieve his goals. But a discussion of those issues would take us too far afield.)

Iraq

The SWP’s cheerleading for the reactionary war in Ukraine should not come as surprise. During late 2002 and early 2003, as Washington and its allies prepared to invade Iraq, the SWP’s main fire was directed against the anti-war movement in the US. Time and again its newspaper scorned the leadership of the movement as “middle-class liberals” and highlighted some of the SWP’s political differences with them. Meanwhile, the SWP did nothing to organise a different kind anti-war activity. The paper kept repeating that nothing could prevent the coming invasion, thereby suggesting that all protests were futile.

To be sure, the SWP formally opposed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. But once the US occupation was in place, it also insisted that whereas the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein had been so ferocious that it had crushed all possibility of political life, the overthrow of Hussein by the US would have the “unintended consequence” of opening up “political space” for the Iraqi people. It repeated this far-fetched prediction on numerous occasions. As popular resistance to the occupation began to rise, The Militant denounced all resistance fighters as “Baathists” who wanted to restore the Hussein dictatorship. The paper predicted that the US would quickly crush the resistance.

The SWP’s conduct on Iraq was a blatant betrayal of the group’s basic program against imperialist war. It could not be ignored. Over a number of months four of the approximately 15 organised Canadian supporters of the SWP at the time voiced their opposition to the group’s policy. The four were expelled. All were long-standing members of the movement; in better days two of them, John Riddell and myself, had served (at different times) as executive secretary of the Canadian wing of the movement.

The SWP’s accommodation to US imperialism was again illustrated in 2009 when the Honduran generals overthrew the elected government of President Manuel Zelaya. Workers, peasants, indigenous people and others in that country mobilised in large numbers against the coup, while Cuba and Venezuela rallied support for them across Latin America and the Caribbean. But The Militant dismissed the struggle as “part of (the) infighting between wings of the capitalist class”. An editorial declared that “the interests of Honduran workers and farmers do not lie in whether Zelaya returns to the presidency”. It warned against “the false claim by middle-class radicals that Zelaya’s ouster was a ‘right-wing’ coup ‘made in USA.’”[2]  (Washington’s support for the coup was apparent at the time. Subsequent revelations have provided further evidence of its role.)

Working people in Honduras struggled heroically against the coup but were ultimately defeated. They have paid a terrible price since then. Hiding behind pseudo-ultraleft words, the SWP urged its followers to stand aside. Its shameful conduct should not be forgotten.

Quebec

Earlier this year, the SWP and its small band of Canadian followers publicly abandoned their support for the independence of Quebec. They hailed the result of the April 7, 2014, provincial election that saw the federalist Liberal Party defeat the pro-sovereignty Parti Québécois government, as registering “a historic victory for working people in Quebec and across Canada”. A feature article published the following month stated that most aspects of the national oppression of the Québécois “have largely been overcome through struggle”. Consequently, the SWP no longer supports the demand for independence. Readers were informed that “the party has not put forward the (independence) demand for at least the last decade”. That was the first time that this change was communicated to readers of the paper.[3]

More recently, The Militant refused to choose a side in the September 18 referendum on independence for Scotland, dismissing it as a debate between “rival factions of the ruling class”.

Gaza and the SWP

The clearest and most far-reaching element in the SWP’s degeneration since 2003 is its capitulation to the Israeli state. The SWP’s reaction to the bloody one-sided slaughter in Gaza this summer illustrated the political and moral depths to which the group has descended.

In contrast to millions of decent-minded human beings around the world, who recoiled in horror and protested at the Israeli onslaught, the SWP condemned both sides, Israel and “Hamas”, for the bloodshed. It adopted a “plague on both your houses” position. In issue after issue, the paper echoed the pro-Israel narrative that Israel had been provoked into attacking Gaza by Hamas. An August 25 editorial spoke of Israel’s repeated assaults on Gaza as “the senseless cycle of Hamas terrorism and murderous retaliation of Tel Aviv’s armed forces”.

The headline of The Militant’s first article (July 21, 2014) on Gaza set the framework for all of the subsequent coverage: “Hamas provocations, big Israeli assault follow lynchings of Jewish, Arab youth”. In the next issue the paper repeated almost verbatim the talking points of the murderers in Tel Aviv. "Hamas’ rocket attacks on civilians and its support for the killing of the three Jewish boys made it politically easier for Tel Aviv to launch its murderous assault, and was clearly designed to provoke it. At the same time Hamas uses Gaza’s population as human shields, placing missile launchers and other arms in mosques, schools, and U.N. centers and trying to keep residents in targeted areas. Its strategy is to maximize the number of civilians killed by Tel Aviv to gain world sympathy."[4]

What is at issue here is not the political program of Hamas, which does not offer a revolutionary-democratic solution to the oppression of Palestinians. But the facts are the facts. When the bombs began to fall on Gaza, Hamas rose to the challenge and led the Palestinian resistance. By all indications the people of Gaza closed ranks with Hamas in the struggle that was imposed on them. Together, Hamas and the resistance in Gaza acquitted themselves well against Israel under extremely adverse conditions. Seen in this light, the SWP’s condemnation of Hamas amounts to blaming the people of Gaza for exercising their right of self defence.

Moreover, factually, the SWP’s criticisms of Hamas consist mainly of a string of bare-faced lies that dovetail with Israel’s propaganda that was used to justify the murder of more than 2000 people in Gaza, many of them children, and the destruction of most of the necessities of human existence. When a socialist group repeats such lies it is beneath contempt.

A far-reaching but incomplete embrace of Zionism

The SWP took its first big leap toward Zionism in early 2009. The context was Israel’s murderous “Cast Lead” assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. The horror, visible to all, led to a sharp growth in the international movement in solidarity with Palestine, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The SWP moved sharply in the opposite direction. A series of articles in The Militant argued that:

  • Israel is not an apartheid state.
  • There is no Zionist movement today.
  • Anti-Zionism is a cover for anti-Semitism.
  • The BDS campaign is not only wrong, it is anti-Semitic.
  • The democratic, secular Palestine that the SWP envisages must grant a special right of immigration to the Jews of the world.

I wrote a detailed reply the following year, refuting every one of the SWP’s arguments. I contrasted them to the party’s long-standing position, adopted in 1971, of unconditional support for the Palestinian struggle and complete opposition to Zionism. I pointed out that the new position “places the SWP in the Zionist camp”.

To be sure, the SWP opposes Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, but the thrust of its argument is directed against the solidarity movement. It endorses the slanders advanced by Israel’s supporters that anti-Zionism in general and the BDS movement in particular are anti-Semitic. The group also supports a privileged position for Jews in Palestine. … The SWP’s discovery of Palestine as a homeland for the Jews and its silence on the Palestinians’ right of return marks a fateful leap toward Zionism.[5]

Since 2009, support for BDS has continued to grow. The spike in support was particularly evident during the latest assault on Gaza. SWP supporters would do well to reflect on the contradiction between their group’s position and that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leader of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, who does not tire of repeating that the conditions of Palestinians that he has observed are, in many ways, worse than those experienced by Blacks in South Africa under apartheid. Drawing on the South African experience, Tutu is a vigorous advocate of the BDS campaign. He recently explained why in a powerful article in the Israeli daily Haaretz.[6]

Scraping the bottom of the Zionist barrel

As in 2009, Israel’s most recent massacre in Gaza has drawn hundreds of thousands of new people into action in solidarity with Palestine. The resolve of those already involved in the movement has been strengthened. Particularly among young people, support for Israel as it exists today in the Jewish diaspora has declined even further.

However, as they did in 2009, the SWP’s leaders have drawn the opposite conclusion. Abandoning any reservations that they might have had in the past, they have now embraced Zionism in its entirety. An editorial in the August 25, 2014, issue sets out the new SWP position.

An “essential immediate demand”, the editors tell us, is “recognition of Israel, as it is today, both a Jewish and increasingly multinational secular state. This includes the right of return for the Jews …” They later add that “Israel has existed for 66 years. Revolutionary-minded working people have ceased some time ago being able to effectively set Israel apart from every other country on earth”.[7]

We see here that the SWP has not only abandoned its long-standing position in favour of a single democratic secular state in historic Palestine, from the Jordan River to the sea. The SWP now stands for recognition, that is, acceptance of the legitimacy, of Israel, “as it is today”. Present-day Israel includes the half a million or so Israeli settlers living on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It includes the land and the Palestinian people of the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel has ruled over as an occupying power for nearly half a century, more than two-thirds of its existence as a state. It also includes an extensive system of laws and practices designed to preserve the privileges of Israel’s Jewish citizens at the expense of non-Jews, primarily the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Many observers have commented on the obvious contradiction in Tel Aviv’s claim that Israel is both a Jewish and a democratic state. But somehow the SWP would have us believe that “Israel, as it is today, [is] both a Jewish and increasingly multinational secular state.”

In the passage cited above the SWP also reaffirms its adherence to the fundamental Zionist principle that Israel must be accepted as a refuge for the world’s Jews. (Why Israel? Why not the SWP’s homeland, the United States?)  It demands that everyone, starting with the Palestinians, accept “the right of return for the Jews”, that is, millions of people who have never lived there. At the same time, it pointedly makes no mention of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. It is apparent that it is not the opponents of Israel’s oppression and war crimes who “set Israel apart from every other country on earth” but the SWP and other Zionists.

Nor is this the end of the SWP’s demands on the Palestinians. It also insists that they abandon their quest for a viable Palestinian state. Instead they are to settle for the bantustans of the West Bank and blockaded and martyred Gaza, “a Palestinian state, as it is today”, as the price for ending Israel’s attacks on them. The SWP relegates achieving “a single, viable geographical homeland for the Palestinian people” to the indefinite future. The viable Jewish state, in contrast, is for the here and now. Like many right-wing Zionists, the SWP declines to specify the borders of the Israeli state.

The SWP is now a full member of the Zionist camp. In fact, its version of Zionism is more right wing than that of many liberal supporters of Israel. It is also to the right of the official position of the major imperialist powers. The latter, in words at least, deplore Israeli colonisation in the West Bank and support a two-state solution based roughly on the pre-1967 borders as the basis for a negotiated settlement now, not at some meaningless later stage.

A major milestone in the SWP’s degeneration

Like any other political formation, the SWP is a product of its particular origins and evolution.

The SWP retains elements of its revolutionary past that allow it to contribute to the struggle for social change in some ways. It maintains a publishing house, Pathfinder Press, that is a source of many important works. It is outspoken in its defence of the Cuban revolution. It campaigns actively for the freedom of the Cuban Five, the Cuban heroes imprisoned in the United States for gathering information on terrorist groups planning to attack their country.[8]

At the same time the SWP is a typical sect that deliberately places itself outside of many of today’s struggles. Refusing to learn anything from the struggles, it often deplores that they do not conform to its preconceived schemas. As with many similar groups, this aspect of its politics contains strong elements of economism and abstract workerism. Yet the SWP will periodically invoke ultraleft arguments to justify its abstentionism.

That said, both of these characteristics are legacies of a fairly distant past. More recently and more decisively, for more than a decade the SWP has repeatedly adapted to the pressures of its own ruling class, particularly on the vital question of imperialist war. Over time, the SWP’s propensity to adapt to US imperialism has become more pronounced. It has become a defining feature of the group.

The contradiction with the SWP’s left heritage will have to be resolved eventually. For now it is sufficient to note that Palestine is one of the key moral and political issues of our time. The SWP’s despicable conduct during Israel’s slaughter in Gaza and its adoption of the full Zionist program therefore mark a major milestone in its political degeneration.

[Art Young was a leading member of the League for Socialist Action and its successor, the Revolutionary Workers League, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Both groups were closely associated with the US SWP. He lives in Toronto, Canada, where he participates in the struggle for justice for the people of Palestine.]

Notes

[1] Fred Halstead, Out Now: A Participant's Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War, Pathfinder Press, 2001.

[2]  For details, see “Why We Boycott Israel: A Reply to the US Socialist Workers Party”, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=1289.

[3] "Quebec provincial elections register historic gains won by working class in Canada”, http://www.themilitant.com/2014/7818/781850.html.

[4] http://www.themilitant.com/2014/7826/782605.html, http://www.themilitant.com/2014/7828/782803.html, http://www.themilitant.com/2014/7830/783020.html.

[5] Again see “Why We Boycott Israel: A Reply to the US Socialist Workers Party”, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=1289.

[6] “My plea to the people of Israel: Liberate yourselves by liberating Palestine”, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.610687.

[7] “Chart road forward for toilers of Palestine and Israel”, http://www.themilitant.com/2014/7830/783020.html.

[8] The Militant rarely quotes Cuban leaders these days because the SWP disagrees profoundly with Cuban policy on many key current international issues but is unwilling to say so publicly. A recent example is Gaza. During the slaughter Evo Morales, president of Bolivia and one of Cuba’s closest allies, denounced Israel as a “terrorist state”. He initiated a public statement that was signed by thousands of Latin American public figures, including Fidel Castro, Silvio Rodríguez and other prominent Cubans, that said, in part, “we encourage you to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against the terrorist state of Israel”. (See http://www.lifeonleft.blogspot.ca/2014/08/in-defense-of-palestinean-appeal-to.html. More than 300,000 people across the world signed the statement.) The SWP also does not support one of the central pillars of Cuban foreign policy, the push for political and economic integration of Latin America, notably through ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas.

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