Response by Tom Dale

17 February 2024


The international Left has, to its credit, stood firmly against Israel’s war on Gaza, recognised the risk of genocide, and thrown its weight into the campaign for a ceasefire. Yet when Russia invaded Ukraine there was also a risk of genocide; one, in all likelihood, averted only by the provision of Western arms. The main institutions and publications of the left campaigned against those arms being sent: a campaign, in its real if not subjective content, in favour of a genocide.

When Palestinian militants attacked targets inside Israel on 7 October last year, it was held to be important not to criticise their violence against civilians and there was not much interest in their politics – what mattered was that they had the right to resist an imperial power by whatever means they saw fit. Yet there had been great interest in the few apparent war-crimes carried out by Ukrainian forces, which were sharply denounced, and in the fact that a minority of its troops were identified with the far-right, despite the straightforwardly colonial nature of Russia’s invasion. Its settler-colonial dynamic, evident in Crimea since 2014, has only sharpened since. It is common to hear, in the Palestine solidarity milieu, that anticolonial internationalism requires that activists in the metropole uphold without fail the principal political demands of the occupied people, or of their anti-colonial activist milieu. In the case of Ukraine, where those demands have included fifth generation fighter jets, cluster munitions, and support for the forceable recapture of Crimea, the same principle is neglected.

There are differences between the conflicts, of course. But it is evident that the Left’s international politics, and in particular its politics of armed conflict, are a mess: there is scarcely a pretence of thinking about any of these problems seriously, or consistently. Renewal is urgently needed, and the Left Renewal authors are to be thanked for initiating a debate. Unfortunately, the statement itself risks setting such an effort off on the wrong foot.

Crucially, there are no Arab co-authors, let alone Palestinian ones. This is not merely a matter of representation for representation’s sake. The lack of Palestinian voice permeates the text, and was most obvious in the failure to call for an immediate ceasefire, and the failure to register the risk of genocide. There is no point castigating others for failing to listen to Middle Eastern leftists, whilst also failing to listen oneself. As a result, when the text was briefly “signed” by a number of names that replicated Arabic insults, the authors had it coming.

This response consists of three parts. This, the first, deals with the influence upon the statement of ideas developed by the late Moishe Postone. The argument here is that while Postone, and hence also the statement’s authors, identify a real dynamic within the left that links certain analytical failures to a Manichaean, indiscriminately violent, and structurally antisemitic politics, it is not so dominant as to explain the broad left’s confusion.

The second part consists of certain criticisms of individual points made by the authors, especially concerning class, finance capital, and Islamism. The third and final part formulates an alternative approach. Accepting that campism, conspiracy thinking and a general lack of credible international theory are part of the Left’s disorientation, it focuses instead on certain less well recognised areas of confusion, which explain some of the more specific elements of the reaction to 7/10: the emergence of a new politics of discourse, the failure to understand the nature of war, and the difficulty of situating human rights and limits to war within the socialist tradition’s historically-ruthless attitude toward progress.

Part 1: Moishe Postone and the fetishism of abstract power

The statement draws its main categories and lines of argument from the work of Moishe Postone, most clearly his 2006 essay History and Hopelessness. This is especially so insofar as the authors accuse the left of fetishising Israel.

Postone’s argument is that when people find themselves oppressed by structures that have both concrete (e.g. the police, or one’s manager at work) and abstract (e.g. the global market) dimensions they often fail to accurately recognise the abstract dimension of that oppression. They struggle to conceptualise it. As a result, they imaginatively fetishise the abstract dimension: that is, they begin to think that abstract, impersonal powers are wielded by certain agents – particular persons, groups, or organisations – as certainly as a police officer wields a baton. Due to the abstract nature of these forces, there are two main way to conceive of them being so directed. One is to attribute that power to an agent that is openly and uncontroversially very powerful (e.g. the United States), albeit not so powerful as to wholly control the abstract forces in question. The other is to attribute it to a shadowy conspiracy, able to act behind the scenes in various arenas – and in the economy especially through finance. For reasons not at present important, Postone argues that, during the expansion of capitalism during the 19th Century, the Jews came to occupy this shadowy position in the European imagination – one which has influenced global thought ever since. The two approaches can cooperate – as in the idea that “the Jews” secretly direct US foreign policy. There is thus supposed to be a structural connection between modern antisemitism and Manichean anti-Americanism: they are two expressions of the same failure, to direct one’s ire against the abstract power of capitalism as such.

After the breakdown of Fordism and the acceleration of globalisation in the 1970s, the abstract power of the global market increased, while the countervailing power of the industrial working class declined. This conjunction, Postone holds, spurred the psychological and political desire to identify new agents able to fight the abstract force. Casting around for alternative agents with which to populate the “dualistic worldview” they had inherited from the Cold War’s intellectual climate, Westerners settled on a medley of postcolonial dictatorships and anticolonial armed groups. In doing so, Postone reckons, the left failed to assess the methods or goals of these agents politically. Instead, they ended up eliding or positively supporting reactionary methods, such as targeting civilians, or reactionary goals, such as the establishment of a global caliphate. For him, the question of means and ends are bound together:

“the sort of future society and polity implicitly expressed by the political praxis of militant social movements that distinguish military from civilian targets differs from that implied by the praxis of movements that make no such distinction. The latter tend to be concerned with identity.”

This complex, Postone says, was especially pronounced in the Arab world, which stagnated economically after 1970. Israel and its policies “sparked and exacerbated” a form of antisemitic antizionism whose “resonance” among Arabs is nonetheless “rooted in the relative decline of the Arab world.” He writes that “the United States and Israel occupy subject positions in the ideology that go far beyond their actual empirical roles.”

Postone’s goal was to reorientate the global Left toward a structural critique of capitalism as a totalising system. Only so-armed, he believed, could the Left move beyond “resistance” to abolish that system, in both its abstract and concrete dimensions.

Evaluating Postone’s theory

No doubt, the sort of political complex Postone identified has a presence on the left. A speaker at a recent meeting at the People’s Forum in New York claimed that when Israel is “erased from history that will be the single most important blow that we can give to global capital and to imperialism” – a striking expression of the sort of delusion that Postone described, complete with its exterminatory endpoint. While factual accounts of Israel’s international entanglements are legitimate, especially as regards its trade in arms and repressive technologies, much “global Zionism” discourse falls under the same heading. Despite its internal tensions, Postone’s theory elegantly accounts for a number of phenomena – campism, conspiracy-thinking, antisemitism, embrace of authoritarianism and violence against civilians – that do feel related. But with elegance often comes overreach.

Postone’s story is intuitively appealing partly because conspiracy thinking is well represented in the crank-Stalinist nexus. But many of these conspiracy theories concern straightforwardly concrete forces: not the personalisation of the abstract, but the attribution of an intentional act to the wrong actor. The idea that Ukraine did the Bucha massacre, or that the Syrian opposition conducted the sarin attack at Ghouta concern, of themselves, no abstract or enormous power, but rather manipulations by local actors. Claims that the US or Israel was the ultimate author of such conspiracies would be distinctive evidence for Postone’s story, as could the idea that the United States and Britain are able to force or manipulate Ukraine to keep fighting against its will.

Research on conspiracy thinking shows that a wide range of phenomena contribute in different combinations to different conspiracy beliefs. Some are associated with personality traits such as narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, as well as populism and support for political violence. As Postone implies, the anxiety provoked by social dislocation (such as the change in class structure associated with the transition to neoliberalism) can be important, as can the need to make sense of a confusing world. In the case of conspiracy theories that confirm or support elements of a political worldview, ideology and strength of partisanship matter. This suggests that what Postone identifies as the “dualistic Cold War framework” may be something more fundamental. No doubt, the Cold War provided a formal ideological framework for the partisanship of the anti-imperialist left, but the extreme partisanship of any political order’s most vociferous critics contains the inherent risk of conspiracy thinking on matters both abstract and concrete.

The economic trajectories of Arab states have varied enormously since 1970, and comparative economic success seems not to have lessened identification with the Palestinian cause. No good studies relate polling on Arab attitudes toward Israel to the state of national economies, but a review of data from pollsters including Zogby and Arab Barometer calls into question whether there is any such relationship. The latter has asked some individual questions where respondents in higher-income countries seem somewhat less liable to be hostile to Israel, such as by willing to normalise relations in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But, more typically, Zogby polling in both 2002 (see p595) and 2020, suggests that respondents in poor, populous countries and rich, Gulf ones view Israel in broadly similar terms. A study based on the 2002 data finds that Arab support for Palestine is so consistently strong as to defy not only Postone’s theory, but each of seven other prominent international relations theories. The authors conclude that Arabs region-wide judge countries based on how those countries treat Arabs in general – a description of solidarity, rather than fetishism – and are rationally responsive to developments. Far from displacing their economic worries into hatred of Israel, studies are consistent that Arabs prioritise economic concerns directly, and oppose normalisation with Israel because of how it treats Palestinians, with opinions on normalisation shifting, reasonably, according to its results. It is not surprising that conspiracy theories are part of the region’s affective fabric, given that low GDP per capita and high corruption predict the salience of conspiracy thinking. But without further evidence, Postone’s general account of Arab views of Israel should be set aside as both flimsy and patronising.

Turning west, an array of recent studies into conspiracy thinking in the United States allow us to situate the complex Postone describes in its proper place. Three in ten “very liberal” US voters said (2022) they think that “regardless of who is officially in charge, a single group of people secretly control events and rule the world together.” Eighteen months later, the figure was slightly lower for all Democrats. An earlier study found 35 percent of all respondents supporting the same proposition, and a strongly-overlapping 29 percent the notion that “a powerful family, the Rothschilds, through their wealth, controls governments, wars, and many countries’ economies.” Neither belief was significantly associated with ideological position or partisan identification. So while the link between fetishism of the abstract and this particular antisemitic belief is strong, as Postone expected, the link of either to the Left is much weaker – at least today.

The idea that a third of the Left might hold these beliefs is sobering, even if other political currents are no better. But we can’t use that fact to explain ideas which are predominant on the Left. If we want to explain, for example, the three-to-one vote of DSA’s recent Congress for a motion that aimed to prevent aid to Ukraine, or the broad temper of the reaction to 7/10, we have to cast our net wider.

Tempest as a case study

One of the groups singled out for criticism by the authors was Tempest, a US-based organisation. As far as most of the statement’s content goes, this seems unfair. They are consistently anti-imperialist, and their support for “resistance” in various arenas, including Palestine, is imaginatively related (if not always plausibly) to a general post-capitalist horizon, rather than seen as an end in itself. They criticise the politics of Hamas, do not have a personalised account of the economy, do not promote conspiracy theories or blend with the Right, have a basically working-class orientation, and have even carried commentary by one of the statement authors on antisemitism.

However, an editorial published since the statement includes the following passage:

“Arguably, for the Left in the U.S., the Palestinian struggle is analogous to the anti-racist movement and the fight for Black liberation insofar as both are key to understanding U.S. capitalism, its hegemony, and therefore its defeat. This grows out of Israel’s position as a unique linchpin in U.S. imperial strategy and ambitions beginning from at least 1967.”

How should we read this, in light of Postone’s theory? Clearly, it reflects an exaggerated understanding of the consequences for “US capitalism” of any prospective victory for the Palestinian national struggle. The role that Israel played in US geostrategy during the Cold War is over, because there is no equivalent form of international competition. Even when that role was live, there was no sense in which US capitalism depended on Israel: the issue was instead bringing Egypt into the Western geostrategic orbit, keeping Jordan there, containing Syria, and preventing the Palestine Liberation Organisation – then tied to an array of leftish third-world insurgencies – gaining a foothold in any adjacent country. The effect further afield, where there were economic stakes, was nugatory: the US role in the Gulf, and its interest in the oil there, have never relied on Israel. There is no reason to think that a resolution of the Palestinian national question would create a state closed to US order or capital, any more – much less, even – than the victory of Vietnam did. The much-touted India-Middle East-Europe Corridor, slated to pass through Haifa, is less a vital plank in US capital’s global hegemony than a public relations exercise that, if it succeeds at all, will likely help facilitate trade with (and political links to) China more than US allies.

Yet it is common to make universal claims for the significance of struggles, and to exaggerate their stakes. A Ukrainian activist writes that her country’s war “is existential not only for Ukrainians; it is existential for those of us who want to live in a world governed not by brutal force, but by the rule of law.” Another Ukrainian public figure expects that a Russian victory would “destroy the modern system of global nuclear security, pushing the world into an inevitable period of nuclear war.” Non-Ukrainian allies sometimes speak in similar terms, and on the fringes there have been calls to break up Russia.

The Left in particular has tended to make a case for such connections, between national liberation movements around the world and the progressive or radical movement in the metropolitan countries. Vietnam was especially a beneficiary of such sentiments. “The defeat of the Vietnamese people would politically be our defeat, the defeat of all free people,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote (p239, cf. also p6, 44, 56, 62, 75-77). This sort of sentiment seems to be partly moral enthusiasm, of the kind captured in the dubious but appealing claim that “all struggles are connected.” But it also has theoretical roots, much deeper than the 1970s inflection point identified by Postone. Lenin had argued that national liberation movements, even if not socialist, were “progressive and revolutionary,” and insisted that parties to the Communist International, “must support—in deed, not merely in word—every colonial liberation movement” (my emphasis). Nothing in his writing or practice suggests that he considered there to be any principled limits to anticolonial violence.

Lenin derived this position from his theory of the specific form of early 20th Century global capitalism, which he called “imperialism.” Because he believed that the vitality of capitalism depended on the territorial control of colonies by empires, it followed that whatever tended to threaten the strength and extent of those empires necessarily tended to threaten capitalism as such. I have argued elsewhere that we would be better to call the form of capitalism described by Lenin “high colonialism” than “imperialism”, that it has not existed for many decades, and that even when it did exist Lenin’s conclusions were dubious. However, this view is not widely accepted, and Lenin’s theory continues to be treated as foundational by much of the Marxist Left. While, as indicated above, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is scarcely functional for capitalism in general, it is easy to see how the broad-brush conclusions arising from Lenin’s position have been transposed, decontextualised, onto the conflict, as they have onto the Left’s war policy in general.

So how do we disentangle fetishism in Postone’s sense from both the ordinary exaggerations of partisans for any threatened national cause and the inherited influence of Leninism? It may not be possible to so precisely in every case. But such claims (e.g. that that US policy toward Israel is because Israel is important for “US capitalism”), should be dealt with at face value, with a view to discerning their rational and irrational elements. If, in the end, the core turns out to be irreconcilably irrational – such as the sort of frothing paranoia one encounters with advocates of the idea that Ukraine is fighting Russia because the US and UK won’t allow them to make peace – then we have cause to reach for error theories such as Postone’s.

Israel as an exceptional state

There are numerous reasons that certain national movements receive more active solidarity than others. These include the activism of the oppressed group, the fact that nation states where the elements of the left in question are present are deeply supportive of Israel (which generates a relative, but not absolute, political imperative), and the anachronistic quality of the oppression, as if from a previous era. South Africa, as the authors mention, and Poland in the 19th Century were in a similar way the focus of left – and internationalist – attention, and for similar reasons.

Israel today, in certain ways, really is exceptional. No other party to an armed conflict has received such massive and unconditional support from the main powers of the West, and in particular from the United States, as does Israel. There is no other apartheid state, nor one where settler colonialism is so essential to its political consensus. Nowhere more than Gaza in recent history has the West’s most advanced military technology been combined with such flagrant, concentrated disregard for civilian life.

Every state, like every conflict, is exceptional in its way. But people are entitled to take real features of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, especially the supporting role of their own governments, as their motivation to devote extraordinary time and energy to opposing it. Meanwhile, the Palestinian national movement has worked over decades to reach out to Western society in general and the global left in particular; more intensively and over a longer period than other national movements, just as Poles and South Africans did before them. This has inevitably sown seeds of commitment and identification. If there were a non-Jewish, US-allied apartheid state with an ongoing settlement project, do we really believe the left’s reaction to a comparable event would have been any different?

To accuse the Left of fetishism in this context is just to accuse an undifferentiated swathe of unnamed people, without evidence, of giving their support to a people at risk of ethnic cleansing for reasons that are dishonest, unserious, or actually malign. The authors write that their object is not “to temper leftist support for Palestinian rights and freedom”, but that is impossible to reconcile with the decision to promote an attitude of general suspicion toward the motivations of the leftists in question. Rather than demeaning Palestine solidarity activism, the authors should positively emphasise the value of solidarity with other struggles. The object of comparisons from one struggle to another should generally be made with this intention: to lift up, rather than push down.

Part 2: Select criticisms

Explaining campism 

The past century of the socialist movement demonstrates that there is no conflict between campism and class analysis, or even deep involvement with the working class movement. On the contrary, these commitments have often gone hand in hand. The period when campism was strongest coincided with the strongest period of the classical workers’ movement, and the left’s embeddedness in it through the official communist parties. This embeddedness did little or nothing to drag those parties away from campism. When there were ruptures within the party bases – over Molotov-Ribbentrop, Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1967, for example – these were not consistently connected to the most obviously proletarian elements in those parties. The very phrase “red-brown” politics, used elsewhere, reminds us that those politics have emerged historically among working class movements as much as more eclectic ones. Today, there is no obvious relationship between working class militancy and what the authors might think of as the proper politics of international solidarity.

Fundamentally, the international system and conflicts within it are not epiphenomenal to the class relation. They involve additional forms of power (such as armed violence and economic sanctions), additional sorts of interest (including of nation and state), and hence involve distinct political logics. It follows that neither any class position nor any set of ideas about class relationships is sufficient to ground a position on international politics, however suggestive such ideas may sometimes be. Indeed, if international politics is regarded as at root an emanation of class politics and therefore, in practice, of the interests of national capitalist blocs, the wrong idea would follow that US and Western support for Israel is an emanation of those interests. This is precisely the sort of mistake – “economist”, if you like – that was mentioned in the first part of this response.

Perhaps the idea is that the pro-Moscow parties did not have a proper class analysis – but in that case, from what analysis of class has there been a “retreat”? (This points back to a tension in Postone’s essay: on the one hand, he is anti-Stalinist, on the other he identifies a degeneration to the New Left, which is to say from Stalinism. This is perhaps at the root of his surprisingly sunny view of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.) If class analysis is a necessary condition of non-campist politics, why has the one major intellectual current to mount a whole-hearted defence of that principle, over the course of more than half a century, been the distinctly non-working-class human rights movement?

Indeed, as intimated in Part 1, it is possible that the conditions of extreme political and social polarisation associated with intense class conflict may encourage the conditions in which both campism and conspiracy theories about world affairs flourish. According to one classic experiment, people tend to identify their enemy’s enemy as their friend, even if they know their enemy doesn’t care about them, and doesn’t share their values. Seeing one’s domestic elite as the enemy may therefore lead to seeing that elite’s geopolitical enemies as friends (or if one can’t bring oneself to do so, to somehow believe that they are secretly in league).

There is no halcyon era of the left’s international politics to return to, still less one connected to any particular class analysis. A consistently anti-colonial, democratic, progressive politics of solidarity has always been the preserve of a dissident minority within the left, at least since 1917, and perhaps earlier – as it has, for that matter, within liberalism. None of this is to say that the language of class cannot sometimes act as a positive motivator of solidarity; nor that activists in working-class contexts should not agitate for internationalist politics. What it does mean is that they should not believe that there is any conveyor belt that reliably turns class analysis into internationalism. Something better has to be created largely on its own terms.


The authors decry what they see as a focus on the “supposed moral evils of “financial” or “unproductive” capital – rather than on the objective antagonism between capital and labour – encourage personalised critiques of “globalist elites” and “Rothschild bankers”, rather than a movement towards the abolition of capitalism itself, through collective organisation and struggle from below.”

This formulation comes close to characterising a broad swathe of important economic and historical thought as just a stepping stone to antisemitism. This is not sustainable. The financial sector really is qualitatively distinct from other sectors; and its unique, ever-changing mechanisms of operation have enormous destructive (and productive) powers. These been described by neo-Schumpeterians and post-Keynesians such as Hyman Minsky, while Fernand Braudel famously identified financialisation as “a sign of autumn”; herald of a social order’s degeneration. These mechanisms are certainly no less “objective” than the antagonism between capital and labour and arguably less dependent on variations in subjective will. Yet the traditions of thought which describe them have little or no demonstrable tendency to encourage personalised critiques of capitalism. On the contrary, they make it more comprehensible in structural and concrete terms, and demonstrate its dependence on state policy. A critique of the financial and real estate sectors is particularly inevitable in Britain, given their outsized weight within the economy as a whole, and the inegalitarian consequences which that weight produces.

Islamism and violence

Describing Hamas or Hezbollah as part of the “global left”, as Judith Butler once did, is clearly absurd. Positively cheering for either organisation as a force within the domestic politics of Palestine or Lebanon (or Syria) would mean abandoning both our politics and our allies, who are their domestic political opponents (and often the victims of their violence). But beyond this, it is not clear what argument the authors are making about the relationship between the analysis of Islamism and recent months’ events.

Does accommodation with Islamism explain the international left’s response to Al-Aqsa Flood? Would, in other words, the reaction have been any different if the same operation had been led by socialists, or a secular nationalist group such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade? It seems unlikely. Is the idea then that the attacks on civilians were a function of the Islamist politics of the militants who planned and implemented the operation, and that had it been carried out by Marxists or nationalists it would perforce have been different? This, too, seems dubious. Although most press took the Israeli line of blaming the attacks generically on Hamas – or “Hamas and Islamic Jihad”, as the authors of the statement style it – the reality is that close to Gaza’s entire political spectrum, consisting of at least seven different armed groups, participated in the attack. We have no evidence as yet that any of these, from secular nationalists to self-identified socialists, behaved differently than any others.

Although Postone criticised “forms of” Islamism as especially expressive of Arab antisemitism, he did not seem to think violence against civilians was especially Islamist: he criticised the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Irish Republican Army (IRA) for their carelessness of civilian life in similar terms to Hamas and Al-Qaeda. Indeed, if one wants a case study in a secular national movement enacting the mass execution of civilians, rape, and the immolation of captives, one could equally point to Zionism in 1948.

The civilian hostage-taking that was the putative goal of the Hamas-led incursion into Israel was originally a tactic of the PFLP’s self-styled Marxists that had not been an important part of Hamas’s modus operandi until that day. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small offshoot of the PFLP, provides an instructive case study. In 1974 it took 115 civilian hostages, mostly children, at a school in Israel, and killed 22 of the children, and nine other civilians. Subsequently, it moderated, announced support for a two state solution, declared that it would conduct operations only against military targets, and in 2000 was removed from the US’s list of designated terrorist organisations. Yet, in 2023, when Hamas called upon the DFLP’s Gaza-based militants to join Al-Aqsa Flood, they heeded the call, having trained under a joint operations room established two years earlier. Images published by the group showed DFLP militants shooting a defenceless soldier, and dragging a dead man in civilian clothes along the ground. In a statement, the DFLP claimed to have fought at three kibbutzes – perhaps with only a single militant at each – where in total nearly 200 civilians were killed.

Islamism and the goals of Hamas

Perhaps the authors raise Islamism less because it explains anything about the 7 October attack, or the Left’s reaction to it, but rather as an ancillary point to their main argument, one which echoes Postone: simply, quite apart from those events, the left should be more concerned to make an explicit political critique of Islamist groups. Such critiques, made accurately and in context, are necessary.

But the authors’ account of Islamism reminds the reader of a line they themselves deploy during a discussion of settler colonialism and Zionism: “applying these labels in a simplistic way allows activists to avoid a confrontation with complexity.” While a complete account of Islamism and Hamas is clearly beyond the scope of this reply, some of the language used in the statement requires qualification.

The authors write that “Islamist movements and regimes have, in common with other forms of politicised fundamentalist religion, brutalised religious, ethnic and sexual minorities, women, political dissidents and progressive movements.” Indeed – and so have non-Islamist secular nationalists in the region. A glance at the recent history of Egypt would show, for instance, that persecution of sexual and religious minorities has been worse under “secular” nationalists than under Islamists. This is because Islamism is just one expression of a confluence of long-run, broad-based social and intellectual currents that have produced such policies, and the attitudes that support them.

The authors also say that Hamas aims at a “theocratic” state, which is to say one ruled by clerics. This is not true. Jeroen Gunning, whose Hamas: Religion in Politics provides the best summary of the group’s political ideas, argues that “Hamas’ system is neither a theocracy nor a democracy but a hybrid, in which citizens have the sovereignty to elect who legislates and rules over them, and God has the sovereignty regarding morality and the principles on which legislation is to be based” (p98). It might be more accurate, strictly, to think of their goal as a hybrid of democratic and religious – rather than theocratic – principles. The organisation’s 2017 principles document declares “the necessity of building Palestinian national institutions on sound democratic principles, foremost among them are free and fair elections”. Indeed, Hamas’s vision of an Islamic state embraces the main constitutional features of Western-style democracy: the separation of powers, no clerical veto on candidates, universal franchise regardless of gender or religion, and universal entitlement to seek election and ministerial office (cf. Gunning, ch3). Of course, they are not secular liberals: they want the head of state to neither be a non-Muslim nor a woman and for the sharia to be encoded in the constitution as a source of law.

Hamas has not enforced sharia in Gaza in the normal sense; hijab remains non-compulsory, for example. In Gaza Under Hamas, Björn Brenner describes the increased salience of traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution, including those drawing on the sharia, but identifies the development as largely an adaptation to the weakness of formal legal and law-enforcement structures, and the difficulty of reforming them. Brenner also describes Hamas’s abandonment of vigilante patrols focused on public “morality”. The undoubted authoritarian features of their rule are ordinary (and probably unavoidable) for an insurgent armed group, irrespective of ideological identity.

The Muslim Brotherhood current has been elected to power in two cases. In both, the constitutional-democratic alternation of power was ended by coups launched by secular nationalists. In Egypt, that coup was successful. In Gaza, despite assistance from the USA, the UAE, and Israel, it was a failure. But the effort nonetheless made the alternation of power impossible, at least until the integrity of constitutional politics is reset. Perhaps, without the coups, both cases would have ended in an Islamist-authoritarian transition. But this is speculation, and in the circumstances it seems odd to worry about the authoritarian tendencies of Islamists above those of their secular-nationalist counterparts. This implies no special faith in Hamas’s future as a democratic actor amidst a post-occupation transition, but rather that any anti-democratic role they may play is likely to be principally determined by factors other than their Islamism. Their status as a non-state armed group and history of feuds with Fatah are likely to be particularly problematic. Hamas, like many revolutionary movements, have utopian ideas regarding the extent to which, after their revolution, people will tend to adopt their ideas. When, inevitably, that fails to happen, it will cause them to confront a tension within their model, between its representative and religious dimensions.

Were the impossible scenario of its military ascendancy over Israel to transpire, Hamas would likely do to Jewish Israelis what Jewish Israelis did to the forefathers of its leaders: ethnic cleansing. (As this goal is “fundamentally reactionary” one should acknowledge that the actual fulfilment of an equivalent goal in 1948 was at least equally so.) In the real circumstances, Hamas seeks the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders “as a formula of national consensus,” albeit without recognising Israel: a position that would in practice exclude it from negotiations. What happens then? If Hamas resumes armed struggle, the results would likely be catastrophic, but given that they have previously offered a multi-decade truce to Israel, it is very possible – although it will be fraught with challenges – that the conditions will be established that allow a durable peace to take root based on the long-term reduction in support for violence. (There is some suggestion the organisation is already preparing a turn along these lines.)

The authors are right to say that ultimate goals matters politically; but it is equally true that proximate ones do too. An accurate presentation of Hamas, which as a wasati organisation explicitly formulates its objectives in these terms, should include both, just as it should include comparisons to the actually-existing political alternatives and – especially – the actual state of affairs under occupation. Such a presentation is necessary, not least because Israel’s principle justification of its present war on Gaza is precisely that, to use the authors’ phrase, Hamas is merely “fundamentally reactionary.”


Certain themes from the above commentary are worth drawing together.

The authors sought to stand back somewhat from events, and to produce a text focussed on the internal character of the metropolitan Left, rather than the conflict itself: decisions visible in the aforementioned failure to call for a ceasefire, elision of the risk of genocide, and the presentation of Hamas as an unqualifiedly reactionary force, despite that this very idea is the ideological fulcrum of Israel’s war. But the reality of its timing, and its specific reference to the ongoing war, made those decisions impossible to sustain. For all that the authors might individually support a ceasefire or any other position, the decision not to say so could not other than have the effect of convincing most readers that the authors did not recognise the seriousness of the situation.

At a time when official politics emphasises the humanity of Jewish Israelis and neglects that of Palestinians, the Left sometimes does the reverse by way of overreaction. The statement overreacts in turn to that overreaction, and thereby echoed mainstream politics in its cautious sympathy for Zionism, sharp condemnation of Hamas, and sense that there was something essentially antisemitic underlying the solidarity movement. It was hence, whatever the authors’ intentions, widely read as compounding the general sense of delegitimization felt by Palestinians and their solidarity movement. To avoid this dynamic of reciprocal overreaction, it would have been necessary to intervene critically through a balanced statement of the whole case, one which embedded its critique of the Left within an overall orientation to the reality of the unfolding conflict and the resultant political imperatives. This might not have been easy, but it was possible. It is not possible to address the Left as if it existed independently of the ideas of mass society and separate from the course of important global events.

This problem was amplified by the failure to name names or quote antagonists, whilst simultaneously seeking to capture in its critique the greater part – it is implied – of the international Left. As a result, a vagueness about who exactly is being accused of what and with what evidence troubles the statement, just as it does Postone’s 2006 essay. This decision inevitably reduced the internal variety of the Left to a caricature, as if nothing separated Tempest, the British Socialist Workers’ Party, and the average Saturday afternoon marcher. Together with its reliance on error theories – which purport to explain how an error came to be made rather than prove that it has been – the effect of the text is to cast a pall of suspicion over the Left and Palestine solidarity movement, one which in the case of most activists is inevitably unfair. If such an effect was inevitable collateral to such a broad piece of writing, the answer is that any renewal of the left’s international politics cannot happen through texts of this type.

Instead, renewal requires the defeat in detail of Left apologists for campism, conspiracy thinking, authoritarianism, and racism. That means the dedicated critique of ideas as they are understood through the writers, texts and periodicals that promulgate them. It also requires the demonstration in practice of a better account of events as they unfold. This must be the task of dedicated publications, because meaningful discussion of these matters is excluded from the broad left’s leading organs. A few do this work, including New Politics, The Fire These Times, Commons, and the writers who have gathered around the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign. But there is a need, especially, for more high quality, theoretically engaged, timely analysis of armed conflict and international politics.

Part 3: An alternative approach

The authors of the statement accurately identify campism, a devaluation of liberal-constitutional democracy relative to authoritarianism, conspiracy-thinking, and the resultant blurring of far-Left and Right international politics, as important facets of the left’s contemporary confusion. These no doubt lay behind part of the left’s response to 7/10, as well as to the Palestinian national question more broadly – alongside other, legitimate factors. But the events of that day also pushed to the fore other, otherwise latent, questions.

By paying attention to what leftists wrote about what they believed and why, we get closer to understanding their ideas and establishing a meaningful basis for dialogue. Indeed, we can recognise that they were often grappling with real problems, sometimes without obvious or established solutions.

Condemnation and the politics of discourse

Unrecognised within the statement, the left’s response to 7/10 was mediated less by a substantive politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict or its associated ideologies, but rather by a theory of what should and should not be said by people in the metropolitan West: that is, by a politics of discourse. Much of this theory appeared to be developed on the fly, and was centrally organised around the question of condemnation. The argument that it was important not to condemn anything Palestinians do under any circumstances was much more widespread than explicit endorsement of the full range of violence carried out by Palestinian militants on 7/10. While the full theory is complicated (some extensive notes with references can be found here), its main line is that any condemnation of any act whatsoever by Palestinians undermines the overall movement to end the occupation, rather than contributing to a sharper and more powerful political position.

In other words, it is a communications strategy. (Although sometimes dressed up as an ethical matter; the ethical claim is centrally founded on the consequences of the proposed approach, and clearly falls apart without it.) This has two problems. The first is that there is no evidence that it works, and no one has even felt the need to provide any – despite the abundant indications that it demonstrably upsets large numbers of Jews (and their allies) for no obvious payoff, and has amplified a series of noisy second-order debates about left and campus discourse that distract from the reality of Gaza. (Of course, many then complained about these secondary debates, as if their prominence was not the inevitable consequence of the strategy they had themselves advocated.) The strategy was justified in part by misguided analogies to the US anti-racist movement; as if identifying gunning down civilians in cold-blood as definitively wrong was relevantly similar to chanting “all lives matter” at a Black Lives Matter protest.

The argument was also buttressed by the notion that Israel is a machine inexorably transforms Jewish grief into power, and that therefore expressions of grief need to be suppressed, lest they feed that machine. This is another mistake: what Israel transmutes into power is fear, which is why “terror”, not “grief” is the all-purpose prefix for things Israel wants to destroy. (Grief, by contrast, tends to be paralysing; hence the slogan “don’t mourn, organise”.) One of the main consequences of the discursive strategy in question was to scare some Jews. It thereby empowered what its adherents had hoped to weaken.

The second problem for the strategy is that it represents an abandonment of political speech as a language able to express the reality of the social world. The idea that whole swathes of that reality cannot be discussed – or only privately, or only elliptically – implies a parochial, alienated, limited form of political language, unable to recognise the actuality and moral significance of events. If meaningful political speech is so constrained by the national location of the speaker, no meaningful international, never mind internationalist, conversation is possible. Much like crude applications of the slogan “the main enemy is at home”, it puts migrants and dual citizens in an impossible position; one which reveals the basic incoherence of the underlying idea.

(This second objection might be regarded as contingent and supplementary: it is not necessarily the case that in all circumstances that there is no conflict between public truth-telling and strategic political language, try as we might to reconcile them. For instance, Sally Abed, a Palestinian citizen of Israel has reportedly described the attitude of Standing Together, a movement of which she is a leader, as “we don’t want to be right. We want to win.” Proponents of the theory under discussion seem to want to be both evasive and marginalise themselves.)

But despite this, and however regrettable in principle, the move from a politics of reality to a politics of discourse cannot entirely be avoided. This is particularly because racism structures who is asked to condemn what, and resistance to that racism is both inevitable and justified. It is also complicated by two senses of condemnation – to express unreserved moral rejection of, and to designate for punishment – and two different putative objects of condemnation; certain acts of violence, and the organisations that carried them out. Cutting through these complications, it was impossible not to admire the dignity of Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to the UK, who in a series of interviews early in the war refused to condemn Hamas as a means to draw attention to the racism of the structure that had made no equivalent challenge to Israeli spokespeople. It may be that advocates of the communications strategy discussed above were attempting to theorise Zomlot’s approach, albeit generally without acknowledgement.

This implies a real problem: how is Zomlot’s right to refuse condemnation in situ to be squared with the failure of the arguments for a strategy that makes such refusal an unbending rule? This is, to some extent an open question. It might be that such refusals have their time and place. It might be that they are especially the right of those implicated in the racism of the question, and that it is thus the obligation of others to do the work of making clear that the left as a whole does not, as one might otherwise suspect, accept with equanimity unlimited violence against civilians in Israel. Indeed, the language of condemnation can, rather than being refused wholesale, be turned into a vector for universalism by accepting it, and then turning it with greater force against the occupying power. This was the choice, for instance, of Hala Alayan, a Palestinian-American writer and Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the Syrian revolutionary and theorist. For the movement as a whole, this is surely the better posture: to seek, where possible, to universalise and concretise the promise of liberalism to protect the value of individual life, rather than negate it. (For an expanded version of this argument, and aspects of the next sub-section, see the aforementioned notes.)

War and strategy

It was common for leftists to decline criticism of violence against Israeli civilians on the grounds that it was not their place to criticise “military strategy” (see notes for examples), given that they themselves did not live in Gaza. In part, this argument reflected the discursive ethics discussed above. But, in embracing the domain of war, the argument imported a new confusion, symptomatic of the Left’s widespread misunderstanding of armed conflict, and lack of engagement with its theory and material reality.

The violence against civilians that unfolded on 7/10 expressed the elements of Clausewitz’s trinity: reason (in which some measure of violence against civilians was calculated to have certain results), chance – such as coincidence of the rave at Re’im, reportedly unknown to the operation’s planners, but which accounted in the end for more than half of Israeli civilian casualties – and passion, including all the pathologies produced when immense suffering is doled out along ethnic lines. Strategy, in Clausewitz’s heuristic, reflects reason and chance, policy (such as the decision to launch the operation, or to include Kibbutzim among the targets) reflects reason and passion, and fighting reflects chance and passion.

Thus, it was wrong to try to interpret, as some did, the violence against civilians in Israel as an expression of mere “strategy”, and (implicitly) strategy as a function of mere reason. Chance, and more to the point, the pathologies of war were part of the mix. The idea that the attempted beheading of a migrant worker, for instance (cf. video with gore blacked out but sound retained) was a strategic act – listen to the screams of the assailant – is clearly absurd.

Some argued that it was precisely this trauma-laden pathological element that makes it impossible to comment morally on apparent atrocities committed by Palestinians. They may not have realised that they are echoing the logic of the Zionist soldiers who carried out the Nakba: “Whoever wasn’t there can’t judge anyone else. Really can’t judge anyone else,” a soldier who had participated in an especially brutal massacre later said (Tantura: 1:30:59). Indeed, if one can’t judge a Palestinian militant for turning his gun on a crowd of civilians in 2023, how can we judge the Haganah militant in 1948? We cannot inhabit the experience of one more than the other – and in the latter case, it might well have included the experience of the Nazi camps, as well as World War II. This sort of radical moral subjectivism is hopeless. It cannot ground a general political view; all it can do is provide an excuse for ad hoc evasions.

For some, the argument might be an epistemic rather than a moral one. The idea would be that because we’re not in Gaza, we don’t know enough about the channels of cause and effect through which tactics – such as attacking a rave – translate to consequences. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the terrain on which the struggle for a free Palestine operates. It is not a mere military struggle carried out on a battlefield composed of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. The idea that an accumulation of militia violence can overwhelm Israel is nonsensical. The struggle – and the idea that international solidarity is necessary presupposes this recognition – is carried out over a terrain that not only includes but may even primarily consist of, public opinion and the politics of state in the United States and Europe. That is what the campaign for sanctions is about. Public opinion and the politics of state in Israel also matters: there is no doubt that the suicide bombing campaign of the ‘90s and ‘00s pushed opinion in Israel to the right, especially among youth, and created a drastically more hostile environment for the fulfilment of Palestinian aims – as it did internationally. It had no identifiable strategic benefits. (This is not to argue that armed violence has never been, and may never be again, functional for the Palestinian cause.)

Although the present war has been associated with a general increase in sympathy for Palestinians in the West relative to Israel, there seems little doubt that the relative increase would have been greater if armed violence had targeted only soldiers. Knowledge of life in Gaza grants an epistemic privilege in certain relevant areas, but so does knowledge of politics in the West.

Human rights and limits to war in the socialist tradition

The LR statement, despite its length and theoretical baggage, manages to avoid the main point: what left celebrants of 7/10 got wrong is their failure to distinguish legitimate military activity from wanton violence against civilians, subsuming both within the category of “resistance”, just as their critics subsumed them both under the sign of “massacre”. Why did they so fail? The starting point has to be that the ideas of human rights and limits to war are not ideas with an original place in the socialist tradition; rather they were born within liberalism, and then adopted by leftists rhetorically and inconsistently. (The same is true of genocide, which is perhaps why the left is also only episodically interested in it.) Marx and Engels derived from Hegel – and contra Kant – a view that history required some men to make means of others, and indeed sometimes to expend the lives of others in pursuit of great progress, through ending oppressive social orders. This is why Marx and Engels in 1848 did not hesitate to call for genocide against several ethnic groups in central Europe as part of a wider war against Russia, and for Tatars and Bulgarians to be subject to forced, unpaid labour by the armies of Britain and France during the Crimean War (MECW 14:345). There are many other examples of similar sentiments.

The founders of socialism were adherents of a Napoleonic vision of total war, that was, after all, the process which made their political world possible. They were humanist in their critique of capitalism, and in their conception of post-capitalist society, but rarely in their proposed means of getting there. They disdained the limited, gentlemanly wars of the 18th Century, and when Engels sought to forestall European war in the late 19th Century, it was largely with the aim of protecting the French and German social democratic movements. Postone and his followers get this wrong when they blame the embrace of violence against civilians on the New Left: they imagine that a casual attitude to individual life – when weighed imaginatively against the grand progress of history – was not stuck in the Left’s gut from the moment of its birth.

Indeed, there is a substantial strain in contemporary socialist thought that sees the human rights frame as representing either a regrettable neutering of progressive politics (as per Samuel Moyn) or nothing more than rhetorical cover for US imperial power. Perry Anderson, with his usual nuance, declaims:

“The tattered if victorious flag of the Free World has been lowered. In its place the banner of human rights has been erected—that is, first and foremost, the right of the international community to blockade, to bomb, to invade peoples or states that displease it . . .and to nourish, finance, and arm states that appeal to it . . .”

There has been little in the way of theoretical reply to these assaults. The relationship between human rights and the left’s macro-historical progressive goals, including national liberation, cannot thus be taken for granted. Under what circumstances can the lives of innocents be sacrificed for historical progress? And why? And why, if at all, do answers to that question today differ from those of a century, or several centuries, ago, or for that matter from the precepts of international law today? There is a theoretical lacuna.

One approach would be to think of human rights norms as transhistorical ethical imperatives superior to those of decolonisation. But this is not the only way of approaching the problem. Marx, and thus the socialist tradition, also inherited from Hegel the idea that the political availability of ethical principles (if not the truth of those principles as such), was a function of historical progress. This notion opens up a different way of thinking entirely.

In his recent Red Internationalism, Salar Mohandesi identifies modern human rights norms as “as neither transhistorical truth nor cynical imperialist ruse” (p2) but instead as a product of a crisis of Leninist anti-imperialism during the 1970s, during which its key assumptions were shattered. By the middle of that decade, “A problematic was collapsing, a long cycle was reaching an end, and an entire political matrix of ideas, symbols, theories, practices, references, cultures, and institutions was coming undone” (p257). Even die-hard Leninists, both East and West, found themselves unable to resist the normative force of the human rights idea.

Whatever one thinks of Mohandesi’s story, the approach is suggestive. It leads us to think that much of the left is stuck recycling the images, political language and moral precepts of a dead era – one where the notion of human rights did not have political grip that it does today. In this context, the critique of those who felt drawn to provide political cover for violence against civilians – if only by evasion – is less that they’re wrong to think that the cause of liberation justifies that violence, but that the violence is directly harmful to the cause, because the moral and strategic dimensions are indissolubly intertwined. Choosing to operate according to an outdated idea of the world, they are fated to operate as permanent outsiders, unable to gain the normative purchase necessary for political effectiveness.

In this conception, human rights – or, more broadly, humanist universalism – represents the most progressive-available standard against which violence can be judged in mass politics, as opposed to solely within a radical minority. This does not imply pacifism, but it would fundamentally structure what strategy in the case of Israel-Palestine looks like, including by setting limits to the use of armed violence. “The only way out,” Mohandesi concludes, “is through” (p265).

Some activists have the sense that a more ruthless anticolonial politics is in the ascendancy once more. The Tempest editorial mentioned above approvingly cites a poll that found half of Americans under 35 thought the 7 October attack was “justified by the grievances of Palestinians.” But the same poll (conducted in mid-October) also found that majorities of the same age group “side more with Israel”, believe that the 7/10 attacks were genocidal, thought law firms should refuse to hire students who supported the attacks, approved of Joe Biden’s policy on the conflict, and thought Israel has the right to launch airstrikes on, and ultimately “eliminate”, Hamas. A narrow majority of that age group even supported a total siege on Gaza, including “power, water, and food” until the hostages were returned. While the data shows that younger people are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than their elders, it’s difficult to claim that there’s a decisive shift underway toward unconditional support for indiscriminate anticolonial violence. (Another poll found a slight shift away from the Palestinians among under-35s immediately after 7 October.)

Still, perhaps this is all too neat. It is too early to know with certainty the long-term political consequences of Al-Aqsa Flood. We cannot exclude the possibility that Israel’s violence in Gaza could only have been provoked by an attack of the sort that took place on 7 October, nor that the terrible scale of that violence will itself produce a turning point in the Palestinian national struggle – there are early signs, although they should not be over-read, that transatlantic policy makers are thinking more seriously about pressure on Israel, and a path toward a Palestinian state. We cannot yet exclude, still, contrary possibilities: that part of Gaza will be annexed, that the slow strangulation of the Palestinian nation will accelerate, and that a more limited operation – targeting soldiers alone – offered a better opportunity to revive the Palestinian struggle, and at much lower human cost. But this sort of uncertainty cannot be an excuse to take a definite view. This reply makes my own assessment clear enough.

Regardless, a critique of this sort – that foregrounds the relationship between moral and strategic commitments – would tend to avoid some of the pitfalls of the Left Renewal statement, which reads as if produced apart from the solidarity movement and its goals or, in places, even against them.