Was the Red Flag Flying?

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991 Janice J. Terry

Was The Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.317 pages, paper $12.95.

IN WAS THE Red Flag Flying There? Joel Beinin has provided a well-researched, incisive study regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the Marxist parties in Egypt and Israel during a crucial era in the development of both nations. On the context of this work, “Marxist parties” means the pro-Moscow Communist party of the region.)

The book is extensively footnoted and includes a useful index, glossary of key terms, bibliography, and a historical chronology, thereby making it a useful resource.

The book traces in some detail the political programs advocated by the Marxist parties in Egypt and Israel, with particular emphasis on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It concludes with a provocative discussion of why these parties were ultimately overcome by more powerful nationalist state formations.

The opening chapters provide an overview of the various Marxist parties in Egypt and Israel with an emphasis on their programs of internationalism and acceptance of the 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab one. This chronology may be somewhat redundant for so-called experts in the field of Arab-Israeli relations, but will be vital for readers who may come to the subject with a good grounding in Marxist literature, but little background in Arab or Israeli history.

Underestimating Nationalism

Marxist parties in both Egypt and Israel during the period under discussion were weakened by two main errors of approach First, Marxists failed to recognize the “autonomous power of nationalist politics” (18); this was, of course true not only for the parties under discussion but for Marxist parties throughout the Arab world and in much of the rest of the Third World.

Second, both the Soviet Union and the regional Marxist parties failed to comprehend the extent of political realignment caused by the creation of Israel. Beinin mentions, but does not emphasize, the degree to which the analysis and strategy of these Communist parties reflected Moscow’s political-diplomatic perceived interests—as was particularly true in Israel. Then, too, Marxists in Israel never effectively explained or grappled with the contradictions between the Zionist movement as a purely nationalist force as opposed to a Zionism that purported to be a force for socialism and progressive change throughout the region.

Indeed, Israel never became a force for progressive change in the region and given its nationalist foundation it was unlikely it ever could have been. Although Beinin refers to this basic contradiction, his arguments would be strengthened by additional analysis and exposition on this point.

Beinin’s analysis does, however, effectively and decisively dispel some of the more widely held myths surrounding Zionism and the creation of Israel. He squarely acknowledges the settler colonial heritage of Israel In the process he delivers a stinging indictment of David Ben-Gurion’s determined opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, his tacit approval of the ousting of the Palestinians from territories granted to Israel under the 1947 U.N. partition plan, and his advocacy of an expansionist Israeli state.

In his determination to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the aftermath of the 1948 war, Ben-Gurion worked in cooperation with Great Britain, the United States, and King Abdullah of Jordan who all, each for particular reasons, opposed self-determination for the Palestinians. Although it is not a major theme of the book, the linkage of U.S. capital and Israel, coupled with Israel’s dependency on U.S. military support, is underscored.

As Israel’s first prime minister, Ben Gurion supported a strong military in order “to create facts” to implement the expansionist policy which, as Beinin emphasizes, was the basis of Zionism. Ben Gurion pushed for an activist approach to the Arab Israeli conflict and established security as the prime object of the state.

However, Beinin argues that the policy of expansion was not popular in Israel from 1950 to 1955 and that those years presented a “window of Opportunity’ in which the Marxist parties might have achieved a rapproachment between Israel and Egypt. At the same time, Beinin also admits that such a rapproachment would probably not have resulted in the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Limitations of Egyptian Marxism

In addition, Beinin may well overestimate the potential of Marxist groups in Egypt as a viable political force even before the 1952 revolution. In fact, Egyptian Marxists were limited to a small group of urban intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish, and some politicized workers in the two major cities, Cairo and Alexandria. The limitations of class, geography, and outlook contributed to the consistent failures of Egyptian Marxists to communicate their programs for progressive change to the masses of the Egyptian peasantry.

The strongest chapters in the study are those in which Beinin carefully examines the almost mirror images of both the Israeli and Egyptian Marxist parties and the responses of the respective state systems to those parties. In Egypt, both the corrupt monarchy under King Faruq and the revolutionary regime under Nasser repressed and censored the left.

Here, too, the nationalist call proved far stronger than that of internationalism. Just as the Israeli MAKI was to split along national lines, so too, were Jewish members forced out of the Egyptian Communist party, which then supported Nasser as a champion of anti-imperialism.

As Nasser adopted many social programs previously espoused by the left, he undercut their appeal. Nasser then imprisoned the communists in Egypt and effectively suppressed the small working class which was, in any case, too fragmented and weak to mount an effective political force.

Beinin has done a thorough job of research but, owing largely to the smaller number of available records, is not able to provide as much detail on developments within the Egyptian Marxist parties as those in Israel. As a consequence, the precise reason for the decision taken by Egyptian party members—while many were still in jail—to dissolve the parties in 1965, remains unclear.

If, as Beinin seems to suggest, they did so in order to live to fight another day, why upon their release did many of them join the Arab Socialist Union (Ash), the government party? Importantly, only the intellectuals were permitted to join the ASU; the labor groups were still suppressed. Although Beinin does not mention it, many of the intellectuals were subsequently hired by various government-sponsored organs, particularly a!-Ahram, the major government newspaper and think tank.

In Israel, the creation of an independent state apparatus brought with it the glorification of the state and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and the concomitant decrease in the importance of the Histadrut (General Federation of the Hebrew Workers) and a de-emphasis on labor support As a result, Ben-Gurion, as early as 1951, moved to smash strikes, making steady inroads against worker movements.

The major party, MAPAM (The United Workers’ Party), which previously had championed a socialist agenda, abandoned Marxism when it became evident it could not be loyal to both Marxism and Zionism as a nationalist movement.

Israel’s aggressive stance toward the Palestinians and the Arabs in general and Ben-Gurion’s advocacy of war against Egypt were outside the realm of public discourse in Israel (171) and became both unknown and unknowable. While it is not true that the Arabs constantly sought war while Israel struggled for peace, the axiom was widely believed both in Israel and the west.

As Beinin points out, almost from the beginning of Israel’s existence even Israeli Jewish Marxists accepted as legitimate the 1948 borders. He assumes the reader will be aware that Israeli-held territory increased by almost one-third over what was allotted under the U.N. partition Plan.

The Class Road Not Taken

As a result, even Palestinian members of MAKI (The Communist Party of Israel), who had previously coordinated policies and efforts with their Jewish counterparts, became increasingly isolated. Their alienation ultimately led to the division of the party along national lines, with the Israeli Jewish members remaining in the party and the Palestinians joining RAKAI-I (The New Communist List).

The split effectively ended attempts at coordination. Beinin has obviously closely researched the political background and discussions surrounding the split. Ironically, but not surprisingly, as Israeli society moved increasingly to the right, the Palestinian population became increasingly proletarian, and moved politically to the left.

Thus from 1956 to 1965, the nationalist agenda was the predominant one in both Egypt and Israel and their Marxist parties became increasingly irrelevant to the contemporary scene.

In his rather bittersweet conclusion, Beinin cautiously notes that in the course of the Intifada the two-state solution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict has again emerged in the forefront of discussion. He ends the book on the note that this may be indeed be some sort of historic vindication for the communist parties who had advocated and supported such an approach in earlier decades. Unfortunately events of 1991 seem to indicate that a two-state solution may be even further away from reality than it was in 1948, 1956, 1967, or 1982.