A rejoinder to Zahi Zalloua and Ilan Kapoor, by Daniel Randall

16 January 2024

Zahi Zalloua and Ilan Kapoor, both eminent scholars, have written a welcome and thoughtful response to the Left Renewal text, of which I was a co-author. Their article raises a number of challenges, identifying what they see as “lacunas” in the text, and attempting to fill them in. The following article responds to a number of their themes; it is not a comprehensive response to all of the points they raise. It is written in a personal capacity, and reflects only my own views.

Armed struggle

Zalloua and Kapoor say the Left Renewal text fails to discuss “armed struggle against an occupying force”, perhaps thereby suggesting a delegitimisation or opposition to all such struggle. The text aimed to critique dominant trends on the global radical left, hence the focus on leftist support and apologism for Hamas. It was not intended as a detailed manual for anti-occupation struggles.

Zalloua and Kapoor rightly call attention to Palestinians in the West Bank, on the front line of Israel’s ongoing project of settler-colonial expansion. They are the victims and casualties of an “armed struggle”: the struggle of armed settlers, defended by a powerful military, to extend and deepen Israeli control. I am not a pacifist; Palestinians have every right to defend themselves from that violence, arms in hand if necessary.

Given the balance of military forces, it is unlikely the Palestinians could overwhelm Israeli colonialism by force of arms. This suggests a focus on the primacy of “armed struggle” does not offer much hope for national liberation. But certainly, the Palestinians have a right to pursue it — although of course, I agree with Zalloua and Kapoor that the right to armed struggle does not confer a right to target civilians.

Does acknowledging the right to armed struggle necessitate support for every military action carried out by any political force within a colonised or oppressed people? Zalloua and Kapoor agree it does not. They share our opposition to Hamas’s 7 October attack, and state they “agree without qualification” with the “necessity of defending the rights and lives of both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.” Is the issue then, simply that Hamas’s attack targeted civilians? If it had targeted only military targets, would that have made it more worthy of celebration?

Our assessment of Hamas is not based solely, or even primarily, on its means of struggle. Any political force should be judged principally by its programme. For what ends does it struggle? What is its social project? What kind of society does it seek to build? From the point of view of any democratic and egalitarian politics, Hamas’s project is thoroughly reactionary. The fact that it is a movement from within an oppressed people, which resists an oppressive state, does not change this.

No “resistance” is abstract, defined only negatively by the thing it resists; all resistance is carried out in pursuit of definitive political aims. Indeed, Hamas’s means of struggle, which include the targeting of civilians, flow precisely from its political aims and worldview, which see all Jewish Israelis as “usurpers” of a land which is rightfully Arab-Islamic. Military advances for Hamas are not advances for “the Palestinians”, who are not synonymously interchangeable with “Hamas”, but for the project of a particular political faction.

Zalloua and Kapoor invoke an aspiration of “shared [Jewish-Palestinian] sovereignty” over the land of Israel/Palestine; I share this aspiration wholeheartedly. Hamas certainly does not.

Palestine and Ukraine

Zalloua and Kapoor invite readers to compare struggles in Palestine and Ukraine. The comparison is apt. Alon-Lee Green, one of the Jewish Israeli leaders of Naqef-Ma’an-Omdim be’Yachad (Standing Together), a left-wing social movement in Israel which seeks to mobilise both Jewish and Palestinian citizens in a shared struggle for equal rights, made a similar comparison, asking many of the same questions as Zalloua and Kapoor, in 2022, shortly after Russias’ invasion began:

“The big question that must be asked is: Do Palestinians have the right to demonstrate and protest against the entry of the Israeli army – for them a foreign army – into their city or home? Do they have the right to resist their occupation and military control over their lives? As far as the military is concerned, there is no such thing as legal and approved demonstrations in the West Bank. At all.

“And maybe we should even try to put ourselves in this situation: what would we Israelis do if an army of a foreign country were to invade our home? Would we give foreign soldiers flowers? Welcome them with songs? Ukrainian citizens are currently resisting Russian invasion with weapons. A lot of Israelis consider them heroes […] So what are Palestinians living under our control, according to the military, allowed to do?”

It is right to condemn the hypocrisy of western governments, and much liberal opinion, for applauding Ukrainian resistance to colonisation whilst traducing the Palestinians. And there are unquestionably many parallels between Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine. Any consistent democrat should be on the side of the Ukrainians’ and Palestinians’ right to defend, or win, their self-determination. It bears repeating, though, that hypocrisy and inconsistency is not the sole preserve of mainstream-centrist or liberal opinion. Many currents on the radical left idealise the Palestinian struggle, to the point of uncritically cheerleading for Hamas, whilst also acting as apologists for Russia and its delegitimisation of Ukrainian nationhood.

But as well as parallels, there are important differences. On 7 October and immediately after, some on the left rushed to direct comparison, arguing that those who supported Ukraine’s war of national self-defence against Russian conquest should also support Hamas’s attack. The comparison is faulty. A direct equivalent could be drawn if a far-right Ukrainian militia, motivated by religious fundamentalist ideology and openly declaring its opposition to the very existence of Russia, had carried out attacks across the Russian border, killing hundreds of Russian civilians. What is the anti-colonial principle that would impel support for such an attack?

I imagine Zalloua and Kapoor might agree on this point. If so, I hope they would agree more generally that comparisons between Palestine and Ukraine must also acknowledge differences, as well as similarities.

Israel, Russia, and China

Zalloua and Kapoor mention, and dismiss, a typical criticism of campaigns to boycott Israel, which accuse them of selective standards by targeting only Israel, and not other oppressive states such as China or Russia. This selectivity is, they suggest, in fact reasonable, because “no one in the Global North would mistake China for a democratic state, or Russia for that matter. Critiques of these regimes are already being heard.”

On the substantive question of boycotts, I generally oppose consumer boycotts as a tactic. They sow illusions in the possibility of an “ethical consumption”, and encourage people to see their shopping lists, rather than workplaces or communities, as a primary terrain of struggle. Cultural and academic boycotts can also have the effect of acting as barriers to direct links and practical solidarity, closing off the possibility of critical exchanges with dissident voices in spheres that are often sites of contestation. My comrades active in campaigns of solidarity with Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and others have opposed calls for boycotts of Russia and China, and bans on Russian athletes’ participation in sporting events.

Zalloua and Kapoor’s emphasis seems to imply, perhaps unintentionally, that, because “critiques of [Russia and China] are already being heard”, there is less need for us, the radical left, to make them. Determining our own political narratives by reference to the “mainstream” narratives — if the mainstream narrative says X, we must say Y; if the mainstream narrative focuses on A, we must focus on B — reduces the left to a negative imprint of ruling-class orthodoxy. Instead, we should seek to develop independent narratives and critique, which proceed primarily from our own positive principles. We oppose the Russian and Chinese regimes because they are oppressive, and we are against oppression. To deprioritise such opposition because our own ruling classes — for their own reasons, and often selectively and hypocritically — also say that those states are oppressive would be to abandon a duty of solidarity with comrades waging struggles within those societies. They are not less deserving of such solidarity because they happened to be born in a state which is a geopolitical rival of the states in which we happen to live.

Moreover, it is not the case that “no-one in the Global North would mistake China for a democratic state”, or defend Russia. In the UK, where I live and am active, the Morning Star, the only daily left-wing newspaper, which enjoys patronage and considerable financial support from many trade unions, actively promotes a pro-China, Russia-apologist position. One might argue, rightly, that the influence of this view is socially marginal. But it is influential within the left. It is marginal because the left is marginal. And it was to the left that our Left Renewal text was addressed. (It might also be noted that there are also pro-Russia and pro-China voices on the right, and plenty of ruling-class links between capitalists in the west, China, and Russia.)

Contemporary Zionism and struggle by Jewish Israelis

Zalloua and Kapoor write: “Imagine if secular Zionists and other Jewish Israelis, rather than limiting their objections to Netanyahu’s judicial coup, engaged in a civil action like a March on Tel Aviv for Palestinian rights: Wouldn’t that be a better way of politicising their call for democracy? And wouldn’t that present Palestinians with a genuine alternative to Hamas?”

This is excellently put, and I entirely agree — both that any call for democracy in Israel that does not take up the question of Palestinian rights is limited, and especially that the development of a political alternative to Hamas requires partnership from a movement inside Israeli society that fights for equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. Those on the Israeli left who refer not only to “coexistence” but “co-resistance” — that is, a shared struggle for equality — have, it seems to me, the right emphasis.

This is something we should not only “imagine”, but actively work to bring about. Direct support and solidarity for forces on the grounds that share this vision and seek to enact it must, in my view, be an absolutely central facet of Palestine-Israel activism for leftists internationally. For my own part, I am actively involved in UK Friends of Standing Together. My comrades have also recently fundraised for Mesarvot, a network supporting Israelis refusing to serve in the IDF.

Tangentially, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), a key organisation in the BDS movement, has recently issued a call for Standing Together to be boycotted and no-platformed, calumniously accusing them of “whitewashing Israel’s genocide” and trying “to paint Israel as a tolerant, diverse, and normal state”. That PACBI has chosen to target one of the most prominent anti-war organisations in Israel at a time when anti-war mobilisation inside Israeli society is vital is, to me, a clear illustration of the limitations of the politics and tactics of the boycott movement.

Whilst I am not a Zionist, on a left where “anti-Zionist” often means “opposed to the right of Israeli Jews to self-determination, on any basis”, I am not an “anti-Zionist” either.

Of course, any consistent internationalist and opponent of nationalism is, definitionally, “anti-Zionist”, but I reject the idea that “anti-Zionism” must mean opposition to Israeli Jewish self-determination, or that “Zionism” represents such a compact and singular force that merely to declare oneself “anti” it can be the point of departure for an entire worldview.

Zionism’s historic diversity is not expressed merely by the small binationalist current around Martin Buber, which Zalloua and Kapoor mention, but by contestations between left and right wings, with a range of political perspectives on the question of Jewish-Arab co-existence and mutual rights. The point of acknowledging Zionism’s historic diversity is to affirm an understanding of it as a movement that developed amongst an oppressed people attempting to respond to and overcome their oppression. It was not a singular, teleologically-driven conspiracy of powerful people with no aim other than to subjugate others. (To be clear, Zalloua and Kapoor’s text does not, by any means, suggest they hold this view, or anything like it, but it is a narrative one can encounter within radical-left critiques of Zionism.)

For the Palestinians as a people, the lived experience of Zionism has been one of displacement and subjugation. It made no difference to Palestinians expelled from their home during the Nakba whether the soldiers forcing them to flee were more personally sympathetic to Ber Borochov or Ze’ev Jabotinsky. But it is also the case that Zionism’s historic project, to create Jewish state, has now been accomplished. There is both a Jewish national group (the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis) and a Jewish state in historic Palestine. That state is the colonial oppressor of another national group, the Palestinian Arabs. The ongoing project of Jewish supremacy, aiming to consolidate a Greater Israeli one-state-solution from the river to the sea, is pursued by people who see themselves as “Zionists”, but is also opposed by many who also see themselves as “Zionists”. I question how much additional explanatory value either “Zionism” or “anti-Zionism” actually offers contemporary attempts to confront Israeli oppression and replace it with a framework based on equal rights for both peoples.

Democratic rights

Zalloua and Kapoor criticise the Left Renewal text’s “repeated assumption of, and appeal to, vague notions of ‘rights’ and ‘democracy’.” They argue that: “The parliamentary and rights-based framework of late capitalism has become an increasingly ideological cloak for covering and justifying domination and exploitation.”

The use of “parliamentary and rights-based frameworks” to “cover [and] justify domination and exploitation” is not new. Certainly it is not only a feature of “late” capitalism (whenever that is deemed to have begun — it is not a periodisation I think adds much to our understanding of capitalist development). Indeed, identification of exactly that dynamic is a core element of the radical critique of what Marxists have called “bourgeois democracy.” That “democracy” is limited, often plutocratic, and sometimes stratified by racial or national origin, or immigration status. But should we respond to ruling classes’ hypocritical and self-serving invocation of concepts such as “democracy” and “rights” by abandoning the concepts, or by seeking to invest them with genuine universal and egalitarian content?

It is also the case that bourgeois democracy provides a higher platform, and better conditions, for socialist struggle than authoritarianism. Where workers have real, if limited, freedoms to organise, demonstrate, and strike, we are surely better able to develop struggles to change society than if we live under stiflingly oppressive tyrannies. Such rights are, moreover, often won against resistance from ruling class forces. Socialists must be at the forefront of struggles to defend rights and freedoms where they are under threat, and win them where they do not exist. Dismissing their importance, as if they are mere sops contrived by ruling classes to mask the reality of oppression, is a form of political complacency we cannot afford. I do not suggest Zalloua and Kapoor do this in any direct sense, but their dismissal of “vague notions of rights and democracy” suggest, to me at least, a risk of such complacency.

I see “a more politicised democracy that includes the economy and environment”, as Zalloua and Kapoor put it, as the aim of socialist politics. To me, “social democracy”, the original political label for revolutionary socialism, before ideological splits degraded that term to its current meaning, encapsulates the spirit of the project best: to extend democracy (understood not only as a formal procedure of casting votes but an ongoing process of collective deliberation) throughout the whole of society, including the economy, humanity’s relationship with nature, and social relations between different groups of people.

“Subaltern” and “indigenous”

Zalloua and Kapoor’s text also affirms and refers to some concepts drawn from post/decolonial discourse and scholarship, including the “subaltern”, and, implicitly, indigeneity. The “subaltern” seems to me too broad a category to have much explanatory value, especially in an increasingly multipolar world with multiple centres of regional-imperialist power. Are Ukrainians, for example, part of the global “subaltern”? Their position as victims of a brutal colonial war suggests yes; the fact their state is an ally of, and sponsored by, western powers suggests not. Binary taxonomies — subaltern and hegemon; settler/coloniser and native/indigenous — limit and constraint necessary analysis of multiple lines of oppression and exploitation, including those that exist within oppressed peoples, all situated within a framework of global capitalist production with class exploitation at its core.

With reference to Palestine/Israel specifically, indigeneity, and a determination of rights based on who is “indigenous” to the land, seems even less useful, and potentially harmful. Are all Palestinians, even those whose great-grandparents emigrated to Palestine from elsewhere in the Arab or Muslim world, “indigenous”, and all Jews, even those with roots in Israel/Palestine going back multiple generations, necessarily “settlers”? The idea that pieces of land “belong”, in an immutable and transhistorical sense, to certain peoples, based on biological heredity, belongs to a politics of ethnic essentialism, not to the universalist left. As Barnett Rubin has succinctly put it: “What is objectionable about colonialism is not the immigration or settlement of a population of a different ethnic or national origin, or of people that are in some sense non-indigenous, but the domination of one group over another.” Zalloua and Kapoor’s support for “shared sovereignty”, which necessarily acknowledges an Israeli Jewish right to self-determination, seems to me either to point away from a politics of “indigeneity”, or to suggest a reframing of the concept.

At the end of their article, Zalloua and Kapoor say, “If refusing the Occupation means anything at all it must mean refusal of the global capitalist status quo and the racist and neocolonial carving up of the world.” If they mean that struggles against particular oppressions must be situated within an overall struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of a world system that continually produces oppression, I agree. That is an important universalist framing: we oppose the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel because we are revolutionary opponents of all oppression, and advocates of equal rights for all. Although, on a perhaps semantic note, I suggest that the aim of the left should not be to “refuse” global capitalism, but to use its own trends and logic — the development of production and technology, and the globalisation of the working class — to overcome and replace capitalism with an international socialist alternative.

If, however, they mean that the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation is the essential struggle, a kind of ur-conflict which in and of itself embodies and expresses struggle against “the global capitalist status quo and the racist and neocolonial carving up of the world”, we part ways.

Where I do agree entirely with Zalloua and Kapoor is with their concluding statement: “The internationalist Left must ceaselessly ask: What kind of a world do we want?” Many of the political dead-ends and reactionary currents we sought to critique in the Left Renewal text stem from the disconnection of leftism from a positive vision of society. If the left defines itself solely by being “anti” — anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, even anti-capitalist — we risk collapsing into apologism for forces that also oppose those things, or claim to, but do so in the name of reactionary alternatives.

The left can only be renewed as a movement fighting for our own ideals: common ownership; social and economic democracy; radical equality; human freedom. Every judgement we make in politics should be made with struggle towards that horizon in mind.