Adam Ford responds to a debate in our paper.
In issue 15 of The Commune, Greg Brown made his case for supporting the boycott of Israeli goods, as well as the campaign for divestment and sanctions against the Zionist state. I decided to take up the challenge and sketch a counter-argument, partly because I’d long felt ‘instinctively’ opposed to it, and wanted to work out exactly why.
After pondering the comrade’s article for a while, I realised the fundamental reason I’m not in Greg’s camp on this one. For me, an essential part of being a communist is the belief that working class unity is the only way to finally overcome the special oppressions suffered by many around the world. Women are generally more oppressed than men, for example, and dark skinned people are generally more oppressed than light skinned people, but patriarchal and racist structures are the products of material conditions – i.e. they exist because they benefit the ruling class. The character of gender oppression has changed as ruling classes has adapted to economic changes, and the same can be said of race oppression.
What about this concrete example then, the genocidal treatment meted out to Palestinians in what was once their homeland? Supporters of a boycott want us to use our power as consumers to make the special oppression of Palestinians less profitable for the Israeli ruling class, by refusing to buy products originating in the occupied territories. It is presumed that this consumer pressure could reach a kind of critical mass, at which point the Israeli authorities would make significant concessions, or perhaps the state of Israel itself would collapse. Generations of Palestinians would be able to return to the place they call home, without fear of economic blockades and bombardment. Peace – and maybe even prosperity – would reign. I have many problems with this premise, and I will try to explain what they are in the rest of this article.
‘Why just Israel?’ is an important question. Certainly, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the economic blockade of Gaza are examples of vile, disgusting brutality, which were highlighted by the murderous attacks on the Gaza aid flotilla. But there are countless other examples of vile, disgusting brutality going on around the world. Such brutality is built into the capitalist system – in a sense it is the basis of all economic growth. So why not boycott China, where so many of the products we consume are now made, in horrific sweatshop conditions? Why not boycott mobile phones and computers, because they contain coltan, which is mined in civil war-torn areas of Congo? For that matter, why not boycott the USA, which currently runs the world’s biggest empire, and provides massive aid to Israel?
Perhaps you might think I am overstating this case, but in my view, boycotts take us down the road to the lifestylist ghetto, which is streets away from where communism can be built. This is because we tend to isolate ourselves when we make boycotting things a big part of our politics. To boycott is to withdraw into one’s self, not to meaningfully engage with others who could be our allies. It is a passive call for a nicer capitalism, and so a call the powers that be can generally tolerate.
Let’s return to the USA’s support of Israel – which runs into the billions of dollars per year in purely financial terms, not including the diplomatic support at the United Nations and elsewhere. This truly special relationship dates back to President Truman, who described Israeli statehood as “an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization”. He backed the first forced expulsion of Palestinians because the United States capitalist class needed – and still needs – a powerful guard dog in the Middle East, to stand in watch over oil, gas and trade routes. If there were to be a massive boycott of Israeli goods, the USA government would surely step in to fill the gap, rather than risk losing its valuable partner.
The example of the South Africa is often raised in relation to the Israel boycott question, though the comparison doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. As we all know, the apartheid system did eventually fall after a relatively widespread western boycott, but correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and it certainly doesn’t in this case. It would be foolish to claim that the cultural and economic boycott played no role in the white elite’s decision to free Nelson Mandela and allow blacks an equal vote. But it would be even more wrongheaded to claim – as 1970s student campaigner turned Labour Cabinet member Peter Hain frequently does – that the boycott won the day, almost on behalf of the black population. This seems like an inverted ‘white man’s burden’ philosophy.
There were other important factors. A series of uprisings by the impoverished black working class put great pressure on the apartheid government from 1985 onwards. But hypothetically, the white leaders might have been able to ride this out if they’d retained the support of the international financial institutions. However, in the brave new era of hyper-globalisation, the South African system was seen as being too nepotistic. Apartheid was now an anachronism, and even the United States imposed sanctions.
Concessions had to be made if South African capitalism was to be saved, and so they were. Black working people had won the right to vote for the party of frustrated black business – the African National Congress, whose leaders gained riches for implementing International Monetary Fund diktats. Today, the divisions are arguably bigger than in F.W. de Klerk’s day, but drawn firmly along class lines (see my April article, Terre’Blanche, ‘Black Boers’ and Class War).
So perhaps the absolute best that boycott supporters can hope for is to play a small role in Hamas gaining power, and wielding it in a poverty-stricken country, within whatever boundaries it could conquer. And even this surely depends on a withdrawal of support for Israel from the USA and European Union, a situation that seems far less likely in the strategically vital Middle East than it was in South Africa.
I find Greg’s suggestion that Israeli workers who support the occupation are “worthy of contempt” to be deeply troubling. Contempt – if we are to make use of it all – must be held in reserve for parasitical rulers who steal and trick their way to ever greater riches, and not a misled section of their victims. To suggest otherwise seems like the worst kind of ultra-leftism, and Greg writes off millions of toilers in a purer-than-thou passage that doesn’t even try to examine why they would hold such beliefs.
And so why would they? Well, there are many reasons why workers from a given nation might support domination of others, not least of which is the wall-to-wall, cradle-to-grave propaganda system which exists everywhere in some form or another. In North Korea and Northern Ireland, Israel and Ipswich, the schooling system and media conflate the interests of ‘the nation’ – actually the interests of the ruling elite – with the interests of the population as a whole.
In one paragraph, Greg correctly asserts that: “We must not believe that seeing the working class as the class of potential revolution means a cult of the worker…Our attitude should be critical.” However, in the very next, he claims that the backing of Palestinian trade unions for the boycott means we should also support it. No reformist trade unions – not even Palestinian ones – will call for true proletarian internationalism, because to do so is to call for their own irrelevance. But as communists, that must be our call.
The Israeli working class is yet to make an independent intervention into the economy, but when it does, we must unhesitatingly act in solidarity with it, no matter what attitudes individuals take to the occupation of Palestine. Active solidarity is the only way that racist ideologies will be broken down, because it’s the only force that will show them up for what they are – tools of the ruling class. Though the slogan may sometimes seem trite, only when workers of all nations unite will we be able to transcend the barbaric horror of capitalism.