Monday, 30 January 2012

Interview with Palestinian People's Party

In November 2011 I spoke with Hannah Ameera, member of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and leader of the Palestinian People's Party, in Ramallah.

Patrick Harrison: Why did you decide to change the name from the Communist Party to the Palestinian People's Party?

Hanna Ameera: Historically speaking the communist movement in Palestine originated in the Palestinian Communist Party. It was established in 1924 as a a Palestinian-Jewish party. This was until 1943 when the Palestinian communists formed the National Liberation League in 1943 as a kind of split from the PCP. In 1947 there was the UN Partition Plan; the PCP & the League both accepted the partition plan but the Arab states and the conventional Palestinian movement at that time rejected it. Then came the war of 1948; the Palestinian communists at that time became refugees as did other Palestinians. In 1948 they formed the Israeli Communist Party, Palestinians & Jews in Israel. And in 1951 the Palestinians in the West Bank formed the Jordanian Communist Party along with Jordanian communists. This was the situation until the war of June 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank & Gaza Strip, and then began the rise up of the national movement at that time. So the Palestinians in the West Bank & Gaza Strip in 1978 formed the so-called Palestinian Communist Organisation which was an independant entity but it was a part of the JCP until 1982 when we formed the Palestinian Communist Party.

In 1991, after the fall of the communist states, we realised that we are still in a liberation movement and for now all the classes should unite in one struggle against the occupation; we realised that we should make certain changes, in the program and in the name, in order to stress the democratic identity of the party on the internal level. Underneath that was the rationale that this party should be more popular and more close to the mentality of the people. In all the Arab world communism has been associated with atheism because of the imperialist propaganda about communism; in a conservative society this is not an ideal basis for a mass party. So we decided to make these changes for internal & external reasons – not only because of the fall of the soviet union but because of our internal needs as well. This was 1991 and since then we have kept this name, the PPP, but according to the political program we are the same, and we consider ourselves the inheritents of the communist movement in Palestine - we still a marxist party and part of the communist movement globally, etc.

Patrick: Do you have relationships with leftist parties in Israel?

Hanna: We are in very close relationship with the Israeli Communist Party – we consider ourselves as sister parties. We are in close co-ordination and relationship with them. We organise a lot of joint work – common demonstrations, meetings, on all levels – on the workers level, on the political level, exchange visits all the time, participating in festival & conferences – we are co-operating in a very friendly and close way.

Patrick: Do you think the UN Statehood bid will have any real impact on the situation in Palestine?

Hanna: Of course, it has a very big impact. First of all, it is the only way now to enhance the Palestinian demand for an independant Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, after the failure of the negotiations which were running for two decades. Second, we don't think that the current Palestinian bid should be measured through the criteria of 'is it going to make a state or not' – we just say that, first of all, it is a political way on the international level to implement the international resolutions, second, it will put the Palestinian people closer to their aim of an independant state, third it would push the rest of the international community to intervene, not only the United States – now the US monopolises the mediating role; it has been a big failure and it's time to look for another political way to reach our goals. For that, we think the bid is a new political path and we should go on this path until the end and go into the UN not only as a one-month stand but a process which should lead the Palestinians to their goals. But it's not alone, not separated from the national popular resistance in the occupied territories, and it's not also separated from the support of the Arab world & international community. It's a whole process of multiple actions.

Patrick: How important do you see the national popular resistance as, such as the demonstrations against the wall or the Freedom Riders actions?

Hanna: We should all the time express our opposition to the occupation. All the time. There should be new initiatives, there should be mobilising of the people all the time, in this direction. Not only demonstrations and actions like that but also the boycotts of the Israeli products – we have a very wide range of goals in popular resistance & the people here feel that they have the power to do it – not to wait as it was before. Before, we were waiting for the Arab states to liberate Palestine; after that, we were waiting for the Palestinian armed resistance to liberate Palestine, and now the people feel that they should liberate Palestine themselves. This is the main theme of the popular resistance. It means that all the people should take part in this struggle.

Patrick: Do you think the boycott movement is having success in isolating the Israeli ruling class?

Hanna: I think so – but not as we had expected. It's moving, slowly, but forward. This boycott campaign should be both Palestinian and international. At the end of the day it is related to the political positions of the government and the Palestinians themselves. The main thing is the European-Israeli relations. The Europeans, although they have certain agreements with Israel that prohibited exporting settlement products to Europe, do not actually implementing their agreements. They just close their eyes for all the Israeli products which are exported to Europe. At least we should demand the European governments keep their agreements with Israel which they have signed. Second, concerning the Palestinian boycott on Israeli products, it is a complicated subject. Here there is a formal position by the PNA to boycott the products of the settlements (not all Israeli products). But even this position is not implemented 100%, because of our hard conditions in the Occupied Territories. If we have to look in the whole picture, the products and goods from Israel we are importing are worth about 4 billion dollars a year. We are exporting 300 million a year. There is a big deficit and in order to be able to boycott completely the Israeli products we should have production, have industry in Palestine – and this cannot be fully developed under occupation. It's an interaction between the political process and the boycott & popular struggle. But as I said, the main idea behind this boycott is that the Israeli occupation should not be a deluxe occupation; right now, the Palestinians are financing the occupation. It should not be this way, this equation needs to be converted so the Israelis understand they have to pay a price for the occupation.

Patrick: On the movement towards a state – do you feel given the failure of the Oslo process that a two-state solution is viable?

Hanna: Yes, I think so. I think that until now the Palestinian people are choosing the segregation choice – in a choice between having self-determination through unity with others or to segregate yourself from them. Until now we have had this dependant state on the West Bank and Gaza strip, this has been the choice until now. I think that the one-state solution is not a practical one. It's more difficult that the other option because of the refugee problem. Now Israel considers the biggest threat to its identity the five million Palestinians who want to come back to their homeland, if it would be a democratic state then it could no longer remain a Jewish state. The balance of power does not permit for us to make such a solution so we think that it's easier for the Palestinian people to struggle for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza strip and afterwards we will see - maybe afterwards there will be this unity, but between two states. For now I think we should stress on the right of self-determination, that this should be expressed through an independant state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Patrick: And what about the refugee question then?

Hanna: It will be the next stage, after establishing the Palestinian state there should be another kind of balance of power for implementing the other part of self-determination, being the right of return for the refugees. By being in a Palestinian state we will be stronger in our struggle to go forward on this issue.

Patrick: Do you feel that an independant Palestinian state in the West Bank & Gaza Strip will be able to truly democratic state if it can't represent Palestinians inside the 1948 borders of Israel, for example?

Hanna: I think that it should be a democratic state. If there is one thing which is positive in the Israeli occupation in one way or another, it is that Israel is a democratic state – but not for all of its citizens, a democratic state for the Jews only. But being democratic makes you stronger, and a democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza strip would be stronger than an autocratic state or dictatorship. I don't think that when the Palestinians are struggling to exercise their democracy under occupation, they will stop trying it when they are independant – mainly after what we've seen going on in the Arab world, this state could only be democratic, it should defend social justice for the workers, journalistic freedom, respecting minorities, etc.

Patrick: In comparasin with the other states – what about political Islam? Islamist movements have won electoral victories through the Arab Spring – is that what brought Hamas to power, and are we likely to see a repeat of it?

Hanna: Political Islam should be experienced by the people for a certain stage. The people should discover through their experience that the so-called "Islam as a solution" is not workable and this will pave the way for a more democratic society, a more progressive society. Some people here think that the heritage of the past will solve the problem of the day – there are certain people who think like that – they should discover by their experience that this is not the solution. Besides that the communist & left parties should strengthen their position & be more popular here because what happened in the Arab World indicates that tyranny will not sustain itself for a long time. Even if it was supported or concealed by certain ideologies like Islam, tyranny still isn't sustainable. We should look into the future more openly, maybe on the direct developments around us in the Arab world will be not so great for the progressive and left movements but in the long run it will be much better.

There has been a growth in democratic consciousness here in Palestine. Nothing that Hamas has done has led us in the right direction. I don't think we're likely to see Hamas elected to another parliamentary majority here. In Tunisia, after the elections, people have already began to think – what have we done? Ok, we were oppressed, we suffered for a long time by the previous regime – but what have we done? I think that people should go through this experience. It's not enough to try to teach them or to preach at them, this is not enough – they must experience it themselves. After that they will discover that this way will not to the goals that they want. Thomas Edison failed more than 1,000 times when trying to create the light bulb. When asked about it, Edison said, "I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb." So people will in this way progress towards real change.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Going Dark

The Development of Cadre

The following post was written as a contribution to Alliance Voices, a forum for members of the Socialist Alliance to debate policy, theory & organisational methods, in response to this post by Adam Baker. This piece builds on the reasons why revolutionary socialists to get involved in social movements which I started to discuss in my last post; hopefully soon I'll have the chance to put together a more comprehensive article on the topic, based on my experiences overseas as well as here in Australia.

The Development of Cadre

There are many factors which determine whether a revolutionary organisation will grow and build cadre. In my mind, the biggest one is whether the party's ideas and theories about how the working class should go about exercising our collective power to challenge and ultimately overthrow the domination of capital have been concretely tested in practice.

As such, I find it perplexing that Adam Baker has written a contribution to Alliance Voices questioning the growing role Socialist Alliance activists are playing in social movements at a time when those movements have begun to, or are on the verge of, winning major victories through mass action.

Adam wrote: “Anyone can participate in building campaigns, and anyone can lead campaigns, irrespective of what politics you have. A socialist building a campaign, however, also seeks to link the campaign to other aspects of capitalist injustice, seeks to join others in that campaign to a socialist party, seeks to win people to socialist (and therefore Marxist) ideology. Socialist Alliance campaign builders, on the other hand, are not permitted to do this, because to do so would undermine the broad party project.”

The point that Adam misses here is that not anyone can lead campaigns to victory.

Activists with a parliamentary-organisational method, such as those affiliated to the Greens or ALP, identified by Adam, will struggle to win any real victories for social movements, as they either don't identify or deliberately wish to obscure the hollow nature of “democracy” under capitalism.

This has been demonstrably true in the case of the climate movement, for example, in which radical voices arguing for real solutions including ourselves, and others, have been sidelined by such elements, the result being the ALP-Greens carbon trading scheme which doesn't even satisfy the basic demand of climate activists to reduce real emissions.

Why is it important for social movements to win? It's not just about these campaigns winning for their own sake, because we believe in the morality of the cause. It's actually about breaking the decades-old lethargy of the working classes in Australia, where mass movements have occasionally sprung to the surface, but none have delivered real lasting victories.

As was the case in the 1960s when victories for the civil rights movement in the US and the Indigenous rights movement in Australia inspired millions of workers and students to mobilise, a strong victory for a social movement on the basis of a mass action-oriented campaign would be of benefit to the class struggle in Australia as a whole, regardless of the fact that future capitalist parliaments and corporations would inevitably attempt to undermine or repeal such victories.

It is hardly arguable that “if equal marriage rights were attained, the movement would wind up and activists could go home”. This is blindly ignoring the real history of working class struggle in Australia and similar Western imperialist nations of the last 100 years, against the spirit of Marxist thought which is always open-minded and grounded in real observations.

Despite Adam's assertions, the fact that several of our leading comrades have been throwing themselves into the struggle and playing leading roles in the social movements of today is an affirmation of our revolutionary politics.

I will admit that party-building activities do come under pressure in branches where many activists are playing leading roles in such campaigns. But in my experience as a Socialist Alliance activist none of the comrades named by Adam have lost their commitment to party-building, or their willingness to engage in such tasks.

In no way does the organisational method or tactics used by Socialist Alliance activists in our involvement in movements “not permit” us to win people to Marxist ideology or seek to join them to our party. I can think of no evidence which possibly substantiates Adam's argument that Socialist Alliance's practices are not informed by Marxism, and I myself have never experienced any patronising comments or hostility when in meetings or on email lists for identifying as a Marxist. However, I have when expressing an opinion on political disagreements within the party, namely about the Libyan uprising.

Adam wrote: “Here we have one of the most senior members within the leadership of SA, openly describing an ultra-violent coup, composed of the most right wing forces within Libya, including pro-Western monarchists, the most reactionary of Islamic fundamentalists, US flag waving pro-imperialists and more, as a 'democracy movement' !! It beggars belief.”

Adam's assertion that because Chris Williams identified the movement for democracy in Libya as what it is, he no longer has Marxist credentials is seriously lacking in veracity.

A spanner is thrown into the works of Adam's argument that the movement against Colonel Gadaffi is not worth defending due to the fact that it has delivered to power a coalition of conservative pro-capitalist forces. When one looks to what is actually happening in Libya post-Gadaffi, and one can see that, despite the inevitable opening up of the oil market to the same partners Gadaffi was trading with, the democracy movement has continued, with ongoing protests in Benghazi demanding transparency and reforms to address inequality from the Transitional National Council (TNC).

Indeed, the “left-wing” movements in Tunisia and Egypt that Adam identified in his contribution to Alliance Voices as being ones that we should support have brought to power, through capitalist elections, some of the most socially conservative forces in Tunisia and Egypt's histories - Islamist governments in both countries.

Does this mean we should show no solidarity to the revolutionaries of those countries, who are now struggling to convince the massive layers of society which supported them in the struggles against Ben Ali and Mubarak that the Islamists represent the same injustice and indignity? Of course not. Yet the principle of showing solidarity to social movements struggling against imperialism doesn't seem to apply in Libya.

The thing that determines whether a party can build up a cadre of professional revolutionaries, or the measure of those cadre's revolutionary credentials, is not the amount that they can quote Lenin or James Cannon or other revolutionary Marxist thinkers. It's how well they've understood the lessons learned by those who have come before us, and can apply them to the struggle ahead of us.

With the watershed year of global revolt that we have just gone through, it's time for the working class in Australia to start putting some real runs on the board, and Socialist Alliance activists and the party as a whole should be doing everything we can to ensure the success of these struggles.

Friday, 6 January 2012

On Revolutionary Organisations Today

The following piece is my thoughts on the nature of revolutionary organisations in Australia today; they are mine alone. I am a member of the Socialist Alliance and of SA's youth organisation, Resistance; in the 2011 NSW state election I was a candidate on Socialist Alliance's upper house ticket. My criticisms of any groups or parties in Australia or abroad, including those I am part of, are in not in any way meant to belittle the noble efforts of those who are part of them. Normally I would have sent this article to someone whose opinion I respect before posting it, but this is my raw opinion on the subject, and I'd love to see debate and criticism of it in the comments below.

An activist from Socialist Alternative, with whom I was discussing my decision to leave that group after some months of membership in 2006 and my later decision to join Resistance in 2007, asked me something along the lines of "surely the question of how we organise can't be the reason why you left?" He is an activist for whom I have a lot of respect; although we'd read each others emails on e-lists, we first met at Australia's first national BDS conference, and he is a leading activist in Palestinian solidarity in his home city. We were both in Sydney for the ALP's national conference, at which there were two major protests to support equal marriage rights and against mistreatment of asylum seekers (my photos to follow soon). Yet despite the fact that we were marching side by side, presenting almost identical demands on these two issues, the thing that seemed the most important to him was whether we agreed on the theory of state capitalism and, thus, Cuba's revolution.

In late 2011 I travelled to the Middle East, largely to try and gain insight on (& show solidarity to) the revolutionary struggle being waged there in the last year, so I am someone who thinks a real understanding of the nature of imperialism is important. Yet to me, the far more important difference is Socialist Alternative's differentiation between propaganda groups and mass parties, and thus their attitude towards organising in Australia today.

The number one sign of a group that has grown too inward-looking is elevation of doctrine and theoretical correctness ahead of the kind of invaluable experience earned in struggle, which is the only way that an activist can truly put their theory & assessments to the test. Despite making obligatory statements against it, this assessment of "The nature & tasks of a small socialist group in Australia today", recently reposted by John Passant, displays exactly that dogmatic approach. This idea of marxism as a static and rigid formula that one can simply read and then apply to everything goes hand in hand with a perspective that one's own group is the only one with the correct theoretical line, and all others are practicing some perversion of marxism. To me, this attitude is ultimately counter-productive to real marxist thought.

If our primary goal is "arguing our ideas – selling our magazine, running information stalls, holding meetings, talking to individuals, organising study groups, selling books – not agitating for mass action or running for parliament", then having arguments over differences in marxist thought and ensuring that we all get on the same page theoretically is the only useful task during a period of little sustained struggle against capitalism. Thus, I can see why the comrade I was speaking to would place such significance on what I see to be a relatively small point of theoretical difference – important, but not hugely relevant to our understanding of the nature of modern Australian capital or the best strategy for revolutionary Australian socialists to work towards overthrowing it.

The fact that small-scale struggles often break out locally, or that there has been some exciting openings in campaigns relating to mass audiences in recent years, such the movement against coal seam gas mining or the one for equal marriage rights, thus only presents a new audience with whom to have such arguments; those who agree with you or can be won to your position, you recruit, and the rest you attempt to get behind your banner or condemn as "liberal". Bearing such a "sectarian" attitude is a complaint commonly thrown against any socialists attempting to work in such movements, including myself; most of the time it is pure red-baiting by those who either ideologically or personally see socialists within movements as a threat. Yet the organisational approach of SAlt argued in this document to me seems prone to such a counter-productive attitude, or, at the very least, unconcerned with the potential for activists to fall into such an approach.

I don't mean to undermine or belittle the hard work that a great many SAlt comrades do in supporting such campaigns, nor suggest that all of their members behave in this fashion (all socialists can become prone to falling into such traps of thought, after all); but to me the organisational approach of limiting a revolutionary organisation's work to propagandising and recruiting new members, and abstaining from seeking to win leadership of what struggles are being fought in the here and now, not only risks condemnation for "sectarianism", but will ultimately stifle the development of leaders and sabotage any potential to impact the political climate and move forward to a future in which we can realistically talk about an Australian revolution.

For example, the following list of tasks:

"We need to be able to confidently answer [the mileu's] concrete questions about the issues of the day and to refute the arguments of the right wing and the reformists. We participate in these movements to argue how they can win – for the need for mass action rather than relying on the ALP - and to explain how the drive to imperialist war and the attacks on workers’ living standards are all the product of a capitalist system in which a wealthy minority lives off the labour of the mass of workers. In other words, we intervene to argue ideas – to make concrete propaganda - to try to win people radicalised by these protests to a socialist standpoint. We also see intervening in these movements as vital training. It is a way to test our analysis and arguments about capitalism today. It is a way to hone the arguments of our existing members so that they can intervene more effectively and cohere a layer of people around us. It is a way to integrate new members recruited from these movements, as they have to go out and try to convince other people of our arguments about the road forward. It is a means to educate ourselves so that we can actually play a central leading role in the future, when we have accumulated more forces."

The list of tasks makes no mention of the real work of leadership, beyond providing ideological and practical direction; learning how to comprimise, build consensus behind your proposals (and find the ways to democratically move forward when consensus cannot be found), and inclusively build a campaign, network or movement. This is a vitally important question for training cadre; is is only through testing out ideas in struggle, whether practical ones about the most effective means to organise or theoretical ones about the correctness or strength of certain arguments, that we can actually see which ones work most effectively. It's not just about about seeing which ideas win arguments, but which ones win campaigns and struggles. Thus, the revolutionaries of Tunisia & Egypt did not come away from their respective episodes of workplace-based struggle in 2008 thinking that workers would not play the leading role in a struggle against the regime; instead, they sought out new ways to reach a mass audience and for the working class to provide leadership to the millions suffering from the capitalist order.

The fair and honest assessment of the weakness of the left in Australia & other similar areas of the western world today that this article gives is used to justify, most significantly, a sectarian approach to leadership of mass struggles. This is summed up in the sentence "Socialists have to learn to lead, i.e. how to convince others of ideas they initially don’t totally agree with." Even on the basic level of education & leadership within the party, such an approach, resting upon a notion of a leader as the one who is correct and should be obeyed, is a product of capitalist ideology and against any real spirit of revolution. To take such an attitude into working with others in campaigns, who may or may not be revolutionary socialists, will inevitably lead to alienation; perhaps a few who agree with you will be joined to the group, as the above quote assumes, but with such an attitude it's hard to see how healthy and productive working relationships within campaigns will be developed, and thus how those campaigns could ever win their demands.

This, ultimately, is the most important things that revolutionary socialists can bring to a struggle; an understanding of the reasons why sexism, homophobia, abuse of workers, etc exist today, and thus the clearest understanding of how we can fight back against the constant assault of capital, and perchance then to win these struggles. And ultimately, putting big wins on the board for little campaigns like these has a flow-on effect for the working class and the rest of the 99% as a whole, which becomes to realise that changing the way things work is possible and, when the next crisis of capitalism comes along, is far more ready to rise up against it. Thus the success of the mass movement against Mubarak has spurred on a whole variety of activists in Egypt, from the Coptic minority to feminist bloggers to workers. If building the party comes at the expense of building mass sentiment like that, then we're no closer to winning anything real at all.

After that, it was somewhat refreshing to read Dan DiMaggio's article Road Maps, Dead Ends, and the Search for Fresh Ground: How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century? on LINKS. For me, it does a far better job of outlining the real limitations and tasks for revolutionary socialist organisations in the West in this period than the artificially limited definition of a "propaganda group". For example:

"Even if it is the case that “micro-sects” are all that can be built now, then let them be less pretentious, less sectarian, more open to working with one another, and more aware of their own inherent weaknesses (not to demoralize them but rather to help better understand the role they might play). Let them critically evaluate all their methods, search out more effective forms, and really ask if they are preparing the way toward something better in the future."

Certainly to trick ourselves into thinking we are on the verge of winning revolutionary change here in Australia if only the organised left could get its act together is going to lead us to inevitable demoralisation. But to likewise condemn ourselves to banging our head against a wall because of the limitations of the objective conditions of society will do the same. Of course, there are many admirable people amongst the organised left who are willing to sacrifice their time, energy and health because they are ideologically and morally convinced to do so; but I don't like to count myself amongst their ranks. Thus, when a party has a line that greater unity & political collaboration is the goal, yet at every conference the same organisational and political tactics are proposed in order to reach that goal even though there have been limited successes (and I'm talking here about my own party, at least on certain aspects such as membership) – it's time for some changes. Experiences like the 2011 NSW state elections, in which the upper house ticket included a broad variety of leftists (some who quit the ALP in protest to join it), though, are important steps forward; but in the absence of a mass revolutionary party or layer, I don't think there is the capacity for them to form without a "micro-sect" party to initiate them.

DiMaggio's list of things to attempt on page 47-48 is an interesting example of creative ideas for organisation, and I think many of them are initiatives that could be pursued, either through direct communication between left organisations or through left unity forums such as Broad Left in Wollongong or Left Unity in Adelaide. But the question of "A common website, newspaper, and/or journal, with the aim of posting important news, reports on struggles, socialist and radical analysis, and serving as a forum for debate and organizing ideas" is one where there are limitations to what can be done in the absence of an organisation. Any paper hoping to pay the bills for production simply on donations or even sales will inevitably struggle; even corporate newpapers are experiening difficulty in this way. However, I think a project like Green Left Weekly, which is supported by a group (the Socialist Alliance distributes papers throughout the country, both through subscriptions as well as selling in the traditional "annoying" sense at rallies and events) but constantly aims towards left regroupment, encouraging contribution from a broad range of activists, can provide this need for a revolutionary media project; this is the kind of direction I'd like to see Green Left move in order to become a real rival to resources like Counterpunch and Znet, the two mentioned by DiMaggio, as well as Australian left media outlets like New Matilda.