The Middle East in Crisis

The Middle East, like Latin America, Africa and Asia, has long been subject to domination by the major capitalist powers. This region, more than any other, has occupied a pivotal position in world relations. Its geographical location gives it an inevitable strategic importance, and it has long been the cockpit of the powers. Since the Second World War it has been the focus of intense rivalry between the two superpowers, US imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy. Its massive reserves of oil, the most important form of energy in the 20th century, also give the region overwhelming economic importance.

From the time oil was first discovered, the imperial powers have attempted to maintain their grip on the region. Most of it, until World War I, 1914-18, was under the control of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. With the collapse of the Ottoman empire, imperialism – then dominated by Britain and France – carved up the region. They arbitrarily created new states and established client monarchies as agents of imperial domination. The overriding aim of the colonial powers was to divide the Arab peoples of the region and strangle the development of national consciousness, which was giving rise to the demand for independence and Arab unity.

The Arab Revolution

After the Second World War, the US replaced Britain and France as the main imperialist power, though both Britain and France attempted to cling on to levers of influence. Britain finally withdrew from the Gulf in 1971. Since the inter-war period, imperialism has faced a special problem in the Middle East. Needless to say, they have always pursued the usual policy of divide and rule. But in this region, unlike other continents, imperialism has faced peoples with a common language, Arabic; a common culture; and (overwhelmingly) a common religion, Islam.

Moreover, the collapse of the Ottoman empire, together with the intervention of the colonial powers – nation-states – gave rise to a national consciousness among the Arab peoples. There arose a profound aspiration for a single Arab nation, to stretch from the Maghreb in the west, to Yemen in the south, to Iraq in the northeast. Over the last 50 years, it is true, there has also been the development of local Arab consciousness – Egyptian, Algerian, Yemeni, etc. Nevertheless, there is a deep-rooted desire for Arab unity. The existence of an Arab national consciousness gives a special intensity to the colonial revolution in the Middle East.

Four issues in particular play a key role in the consciousness of the Arab masses:

(1) The desire for Arab unity, ultimately the formation of a single Arab nation. Arab leaders like Nasser in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya, who have appealed to the idea of Arab unity, sometimes referred to as ‘pan-Arabism’, have evoked enormous support from the masses, despite the fact that they have in reality exploited this desire to further their own power and prestige. Support for Saddam Hussein among the Arab masses at the present time is mainly because of his pan-Arab, anti-US imperialist stance, not for the kind of regime he has established in Iraq.

(2) The Arab masses are bitterly aware that the oil extracted from their lands has for the most part been sold extremely cheaply to the big oil companies and the Western capitalists. The giant Western oil companies have made enormous profits, while the compliant rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf states, etc, have been handsomely paid off. The majority of the Arab peoples share the impoverished living standards and conditions of the majority in the underdeveloped lands. Again, this explains the enormous popularity amongst the Arab poor of leaders like Qasim in Iraq in the 1960s, Qaddafi in Libya, and now Saddam, who have taken measures against the Western oil companies and used oil revenues to improve living standards. There is a profound desire that the oil wealth should be used to transform the lives of all the Arab people.

(3) There is a burning desire to see the liberation of Palestine. The oppression of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, together with the appalling conditions of the Palestinians still living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, etc, and the diaspora of the Palestinians as immigrant workers in the rich oil states, is a wound in the flesh of the Arab peoples. By linking the future of Kuwait with the future of Palestine, Saddam has gained enormous sympathy throughout the Arab states.

(4) There is a burning hatred of imperialism, above all US imperialism, and support for every form of resistance to imperialism. The US has financed and armed the state of Israel, and without such support Israel would not be able to maintain its position. In recent years, moreover, the US has enormously increased its support to the monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, which are just as much client states as Israel. Britain has continued its policy of support for the reactionary rulers of the Gulf states, while in Lebanon France long supported the reactionary leaders of the Maronite Christians who previously dominated the Lebanese state.

The revolutionary aspirations of the Arab masses, however, have never been matched by the leaders of the Arab states. The monarchies, like the Saudi regime, originally owed their position of power and wealth to the colonial powers. Their fear of the masses ties them to imperialism. The capitalists of the different Arab nation states have always been too weak economically and too feeble politically to assert their leadership over society. Since independence, therefore, the Arab states have mostly been ruled by a succession of Bonapartist dictators. In some cases, economic crisis and the radicalization of the masses have pushed these Bonapartists into taking radical measures. In Egypt, for instance, Nasser nationalized the Suez canal, carried out a partial land reform, developed state industry, and gave reforms to the workers and peasants. In Iraq, Qasim nationalized foreign oil interests and implemented reforms. The existence of the USSR as a counter-weight to US imperialism gave these regimes some room for maneuver. The Soviet bureaucracy, attempting to build up points of strategic support in the Middle East, at various times gave economic and military aid to the regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. In the case of Syria, the revolutionary movement in 1966 pushed the Syrian Ba’athist regime beyond the limits of capitalism, though the nationalized economy came under the totalitarian control of a ruling elite.

While such Bonapartist regimes can take measures against the old landlord-merchant class and strike blows at imperialism, they always attempt to direct change from above, fearing the conscious political involvement of the masses. When Qasim was overthrown by a rightwing military coup in 1963, for instance, he rejected the masses’ demand for arms to defend society against a ruthless reaction. Today, Saddam’s move to unify Iraq and Kuwait has been carried out from above by purely military means, without the involvement of the workers.

The Arab rulers appeal to the masses’ desire for pan-Arab unity, but in practice always put their own national power and prestige first. They use Israel and the plight of the Palestinians to divert the discontent of their peoples from problems at home. All the Arab regimes, including the Saudis and the Emir of Kuwait, subsidize the PLO and other leaders in order to keep a hold over them. They are as afraid as the Israeli ruling class of the establishment of a Palestinian state which could move in a radical anti-capitalist direction and act as a catalyst for revolution throughout the region. At the same time, the totalitarian character of the Arab regimes and their narrow nationalist ideology has no appeal to the Israeli working class. On the contrary, threats to ‘burn Israel’ drive Jewish workers into the arms of rightwing Zionist leaders, cutting across the struggle against the growing burdens thrown on workers by the crisis of Israeli capitalism.

Only the masses themselves, under the leadership of the working class, can carry through the aims of the Arab revolution. In the past, the working class, through general strikes and insurrectionary movements, played a key part in gaining independence from the colonial powers and overthrowing imperialist puppets. Unfortunately, the Stalinist policies of the region’s once-powerful Communist parties have for decades held back the growth of the labor movement in the Arab world. The Communist Party leaders acted as agents of the Soviet bureaucracy, subordinating workers’ organizations to Bonapartist and national-capitalist parties, frequently resulting in the tragic massacre and persecution of party activists.

Over the last decade, there has been a growth of rightwing political Islamic. This partly reflects the impact of the Iranian revolution in 1979 (which we will return to later). It also reflects the despair of some of the poorest strata of the Arab masses, and their disillusionment with past leaders and discredited policies. Nasserism, for instance, both in Egypt and its various other national forms, failed to produce lasting gains for the workers and peasants. Confrontation with imperialism gave way to compromise with imperialism, as exemplified by Sadat in Egypt, who was assassinated by rightwing Islamists. Leaders of the Palestinians, moreover, have failed to defeat Israel or improve the lot of the Palestinians. Amongst the Palestinians in Jordan and the West Bank, and also amongst sections of the Shia Arabs in Lebanon, there has been a growth of support for rightwing Islamic organizations and militias, like Hezbollah. Despair and disillusionment has led to a turning back to the past, to the apparently simple, bold ideas of Islamic militancy, which portrays US imperialism as ‘the great Satan’, and Western influence as ‘evil’. This undoubtedly expresses the mass hatred for the role of imperialism in the region. But a return to the religious puritanism of the past, however militant, cannot provide a way out for the Arab masses.

A Socialist Confederation of the Middle East

It is the working class which is the key to the future. The industrial growth in countries like Egypt, Iraq and Syria in the recent period, has led to the strengthening of the proletariat. In the next period, the Arab workers will again move on to the stage as a key force for change.

Policies that remain within the limits of capitalism, or are distorted by Stalinist ideology, have nothing to offer the exploited Arab peoples. Revolutionary change requires a socialist program: the expropriation of all remaining landlords, and the socialization and planning of industry on the basis of workers’ democracy. Oil, as the present war shows, must be exploited in a planned way in the interests of all the peoples of the Middle East. Living standards would be dramatically raised over a short period.

Even a socialist program, however, will not solve the region’s problems within the framework of the existing national states. The call for Arab unity already challenges the frontiers, though the existing rulers will contemplate unity only if it extends their own power. The struggle can only be advanced under the banner of the socialist confederation of the Middle East. This would mean a democratic association of states in which the Palestinians, Israelis, and Kurds would achieve self-determination. The democratic, language and religious rights of all the region’s many minorities would be guaranteed.

These are the only ideas which will cut through the horrendous problems of the Middle East, which can never be resolved within the limits of capitalism.

The Israeli State

To try to keep its grip on the region in the face of the Arab revolution, Western imperialism attempted to base itself on client regimes resting on non-Arab peoples. Britain and the US built up the Shah of Persia, until his overthrow in 1979. France based itself on the Maronite Christian minority of Lebanon. Most important of all, US imperialism based itself on Israel as the bridgehead for counter-revolution against the revolutionary movement of the Arab peoples.

The leaders of the Israeli state resisted Saddam’s early attempt to involve them directly in the war. Such is the hatred for the Israeli state among the Arab masses, that Israel’s direct intervention would split the US-dominated alliance and provoke crises in the Arab states currently supporting the US. Whatever its military response, Israel is inevitably embroiled in the conflict.

Marxists support the right of the Israeli people to exist as a nation. Israel has now been there for over four decades and has a population of about five million. There can be no question of driving the Israeli Jewish people out, which would mean another bloody conflict with endless repercussions. However, we do not support the present state, which is based on the Israeli capitalist class. Israeli capitalism is inevitably linked with US imperialism, though it has become a ‘Frankenstein monster’, no longer completely under the control of its paymaster. We support the struggle for a socialist Israel, as part of a socialist confederation of the region.

The Struggle of the Palestinians

The development of Israel has tragically born out the warnings of Marxists in 1948, at the time of the state’s formation. We opposed the setting up of such a state. Many of the Jewish immigrants in the period before the Second World War had belonged to the labor movement in Russia and Eastern Europe. They believed that they could set up a democratic, or even a socialist, Israel that would provide a refuge from the oppression and pogroms of the ghettos in Eastern Europe. They failed to see that such a state would always depend on the backing of the Western powers. British imperialism, for instance, which ruled Palestine as a colony under a League of Nations ‘mandate’, promised Jewish leaders a homeland in Palestine while cynically assuring Arab rulers that they would allow no such development. The kibbutzim were defended by the settlers as model Jewish socialist communities. In reality, they were a vehicle for European settlement of Palestinian land.

The historic demand for a Jewish homeland was being fulfilled at the cost of trampling on the national rights of the Palestinians. Many of them were driven off their land at the time, and subsequently Palestinians have formed an oppressed minority within Israel, denied democratic rights.

The Nazi holocaust, the barbarous fascist persecution of the Jews and the extermination of six million in the gas chambers, aroused widespread support in the West for the creation of a ‘Jewish homeland’. The Western powers approved the establishment of Israel, under the auspices of the United Nations. Stalin, too, initially supported the move, although the Soviet bureaucracy later changed its position.

Israel was set up as a theocratic state (that is, organized on religious principles), in which only Jews have rights to full citizenship. As a result of the Israeli-Arab war of 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank of the Jordan (part of the state of Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (part of Egypt), thus imposing occupation on another 1.5 million Palestinians. Since then, Israel has annexed the West Bank and stepped up Jewish emigration there. Recently, a campaign has begun aimed at driving the Arab population out of East Jerusalem.

Far from providing a safe haven for Jewish people, Israel has always been an armed camp under a continuous state of siege. The state has been involved in five wars: the war with the Arab states at the time of its formation in 1948-49; the military adventure launched by Britain and France against Egypt in 1956; the 1967 war with Egypt and Syria; the 1973 war with Egypt; and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Now Israel is inescapably involved in the Gulf War.

Israel exists in a state of permanent crisis. Not only Arabs in the occupied territories, but those in Israel, are denied democratic rights, which in any case are increasingly restricted for Israelis themselves by security restraints. There is an organic economic crisis. The living standards of the poorer sections of Israeli society are being pushed down. In late-1990 the rightwing Shamir government introduced more economic austerity measures. State indebtedness is steadily increasing. Without US aid and the contributions of the Jewish community abroad, Israel would not survive at all. The Shamir government view Russian immigrants as their new salvation, with the prospect of further US subsidies (starting with another £13 billion), to extend the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. At the beginning of February, Shamir, the Israeli Prime Minister, gave a cabinet seat to Rechavan Ze’evi, leader of the tiny Moledet (homeland) faction, as minister without portfolio. Ze’evi is an ultra-right reactionary, who advocates the mass ‘transfer’ abroad of Palestinians. He is also a strong critic of the government’s decision, so far, not to retaliate for Iraqi missile attacks. This is a clear warning from Shamir to US imperialism that the Israeli ruling class has no intention of meekly falling into line with the policies of Washington, despite the fact that it depends on them for subsidies. “The move,” commented the Financial Times (4 February 1991), “sends a clear signal that the Prime Minister is not contemplating bowing to pressure to make concessions on the West Bank and Gaza strip after the Gulf War has ended.” The Israeli leaders have made it clear that, as far as they are concerned, there is no ‘linkage’ between the Gulf and the Palestine issue. Shamir has repeatedly stated that Israel will not participate in a Middle East peace conference. Yet as long as the Palestinians are denied self-determination, stability will not be achieved in the region.

Over the last three years, Israel has been shaken to its foundations by the Intifada – the uprising of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories. Virtually the whole population, men, women and children, have been involved in an almost unbroken wave of demonstrations and clashes with the Israeli armed forces. Over 750 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces during the uprising. The movement expresses the depth of anger and frustration amongst the Palestinians. The beginning of the large-scale influx of Russian Jews opened up the prospect of the expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank. Most Palestinians had lost any hope that the leaders of the Arab states would take any real steps to improve their position. Leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the mass umbrella organization of the Palestinians, have also failed to bring about any significant change.

The impasse of the PLO leadership bears out the position of the Militant [precursor of the Socialist Party] in relation to guerrilla struggle. The strategy of the Palestinian leaders was to rely on the struggle of an armed minority. This gave no role to the majority of Palestinian workers and youth. A policy of individual terrorism, as opposed to mass struggle, could never bring about the defeat of the Israeli state. Guerrillaism paralyzed the movement of the working class. On the other hand, the general strike of Arab workers in Israel and on the West Bank in 1981, and the Intifada, have had more effect than years of guerrilla skirmishes, demonstrating the enormous latent power of the proletariat.

At the same time, the various Palestinian leaders have always had ties with the Arab regimes, though these change in complexion from time to time. The PLO leadership has adhered to the theory of ‘stages’ in the liberation of Palestine: first achieve an independent Palestinian state, and only then grapple with the question of what kind of state it will be. This has always gone together with a policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the Arab regimes, eschewing any ‘interference’ in the ‘internal affairs’ of the Arab states. In 1970, for instance, there was an uprising against King Hussein’s regime in Jordan. The Palestinian workers and fedayeen, who make about 60 per cent of Jordan’s population, could have taken power into their own hands – as Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, subsequently admitted. The Palestinian leaders, however, diverted the revolutionary movement, on the grounds that they should not interfere in the affairs of Jordan! This resulted in the devastating ‘Black September’ massacre of the Palestinians. On the basis of a socialist appeal to the Arab proletariat and the working class of Israel, a Palestinian government in Jordan could have transformed the situation throughout the Middle East.

In December 1987, under the pressure of their desperate conditions, the Palestinian people spontaneously took to the road of mass uprising. But the Intifada has temporarily faltered, because of the lack of clear leadership. Now there is enormous support for Saddam: “He is the only Arab leader who can stand up to the Americans,” says a young Palestinian; “We will give our lives for him.” This is the voice of desperation.

The struggle for Palestinian liberation, betrayed time and again by the leaders of the Arab states, cries out for a socialist program. Only the aim of a socialist Palestine can harness the revolutionary energy of the Palestinians, and provide the basis for an organized mass movement. National liberation, moreover, can only be achieved within the framework of a socialist confederation of the Middle East. The struggle of the Palestinians must be linked to the fight of Arab workers to transform the Arab states on socialist lines. The Arab rulers with whom the PLO leaders hobnob are afraid of the creation of a revolutionary Palestinian state. At the same time, such a program would appeal to the Israeli workers, providing a basis for class unity between Arab and Jewish workers, a vital ingredient of a socialist solution to the region’s grotesque contradictions.

The Iranian Revolution

Alongside fortress Israel, the United States and Britain also built up the power of the Shah of Iran, a policy which rebounded on them with a vengeance. The revolutionary overthrow of the Shah’s police state in 1979 sent shockwaves around the region. The subsequent war between Iran and Iraq eventually drew the United States into supporting Iraq, thus helping to build up the military machine of Saddam Hussein.

The Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza, was a Bonapartist dictator who legitimized his police rule with the fake mantle of a royal dynasty. The United States restored and strengthened his personal rule after their intervention in 1951 to engineer a coup against the government of Muhammad Musaddiq, a nationalist leader who, under the pressure of mass support, had nationalized British and US oil interests.

Throughout the 1970s, the US and Britain continued to build up the Shah’s regime to act as a regional policeman on their behalf. The Shah, however, was not content to remain a mere stooge, and developed his own ambition to play the role of a regional superpower. In 1973-74, moreover, the Shah appeared as one of the OPEC radicals, demanding a higher price for oil. The massive industrial development in Iran, moreover, produced growing popular dissatisfaction with the wide inequalities in wealth which were opened up. The growth of heavy industry led to the emergence of a working class, which increasingly pushed for change. Under pressure from the US, the Shah made half-hearted attempts to carry out reforms from above in order to prevent revolution from below. In 1979, his rotten regime was swept away by a tidal wave of revolution. The repressive state machine was suspended in mid-air, the army cracked, and power passed onto the streets. The working class, especially the oil workers in the southern province of Arabistan, played a key part in bringing down the regime.

The working class, however, lacked an independent, socialist leadership. The leaders of Iran’s underground Communist Party, the Tudeh, tail-ended the liberal-nationalist capitalist politicians of the National Front, who had no real base. Over a period of years, because of the bankruptcy of the CP leaders and the weakness of liberal-democratic organizations, opposition to the Shah’s dictatorship had developed through the mosques. In 1979 the leadership of the revolutionary movement was captured by the mullahs, and this gave rise to the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian revolution, therefore, had a contradictory character. Its leadership was in the hands of Khomeini and his radical Islamic allies, who ruthlessly wiped out all their opponents and crushed any independent movement of the working class. On the other hand, they expropriated the property of the Shah and his ruling clique, and passed reforms in favor of the poor, particularly subsidies of food and rents.

Above all, the Iranian revolution, despite its distorted character, delivered a devastating blow against US imperialism. In 1979, the Islamic radicals, drawing on the deep-rooted hatred of the Shah’s American paymasters, used the hostages seized during the occupation of the US embassy as a lever to oust the liberal-capitalist politicians and consolidate their own hold on power. The 444-day hostage crisis demonstrated to the world the impotence of American power. This was underlined by President Carter’s disastrous military rescue mission, which had to be aborted in the Tabas desert with the death of eight American commandos.

The Islamic republic, for which the Shah’s regime had prepared the ground, posed a dire threat to the shaky economic and military framework imposed on the Middle East by the United States. Khomeini pledged his regime to export Islamic radicalism throughout the region. This particularly threatened the stability of regimes like Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states with Shia minorities. The Iranian Islamic republic based itself on the Shi’ite (as opposed to Sunni) branch of Islam and potentially appealed to the Shia minorities in the other Arab states – including Iraq, where Shias form over half the population. In any case, the Iranian and Iraqi states had long been contenders for regional domination.