Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2015

On the SWP’s turn toward Israel

Filed under: cults,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

SWP leader Norton Sandler: “There is no Zionist movement today”

I had quite a few misgivings about writing this article since the SWP of the USA is such a minor player. Yet its Zionist evolution is of such a shocking nature and because so many ex-members—including me—have been so perplexed by it that I finally decided to put something together.

I very rarely write about this group nowadays but at one time it mattered a lot more to me. I was a member from 1967 to 1978 and at the time I left it had about 1500 members. Now it has around a hundred or so mostly aging (like me) cadre. I maintain a mailing list on the group at Yahoo that was originally designed to shunt discussions about it from ex-members off of Marxmail that really didn’t need to be burdened by such trivia. Ninety percent of our subscribers have no idea what the SWP was, even if at one time it was the apple of Leon Trotsky’s eye.

The Militant newspaper article that prompted this response appeared in the April 6th edition that was posted to their website yesterday. Titled “Israel vote marks political openings for workers, Arabs”, it celebrates Bibi Netanyahu’s election:

A strong vote for the Likud Party in the March 17 Israeli elections ensures the next government will continue to be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The results reflect concerns of working people there that U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy makes the threat of attacks from Iran and the reactionary Islamist Hamas forces that rule Gaza more likely.

If you read these sentences in isolation, you’d think you had stumbled across a NY Post or WSJ editorial except for the boilerplate reference to “working people”. A subsequent paragraph under the subheading “Views from the Left” is even more ghastly:

Virtually the entire U.S. and Israeli petty-bourgeois left holds the view that a Netanyahu victory proves working people in Israel are hopelessly reactionary. Some were dismayed, others overjoyed at the result.

Gideon Levy, a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, heaped scorn on working people, writing that the election showed “the nation must be replaced,” and called for “general elections to choose a new Israeli people — immediately.”

The Times published a column March 18 by Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which supports the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel. “The biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel,” Munayyer wrote. “It can’t and it won’t.”

He said he was glad, because if Netanyahu had lost, their boycott efforts would have been weakened.

Supporters of the boycott say it’s aimed at forcing Tel Aviv to end its control of the West Bank and its embargo of Gaza. But the campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map.

Now there are some good people on the left who oppose the BDS campaign, like Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky but the SWP is coming from a different place altogether. The notion that the “campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map” is not the sort of thing you’d hear from Norman Finkelstein. Rather it reeks of Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz and Abraham Foxman.

When I was a member, the SWP was probably the most consistent defender of Palestinian rights on the left, with former left-Zionist group member Peter Buch a tireless speaker and writer of books such as “Burning Issues of the Mideast Crisis”. You can still see some anti-Zionist books on sale at Pathfinder such as Dave Frankel and Will Reissner’s “War Against the Palestinian People” but their analysis is at odds—obviously–with the current line of this sect. What you would expect from a group that has changed its line by 180 degrees is some explanation but none has been forthcoming. Of course, this is the norm for Stalinist parties but not one founded to promote Trotskyism. The adoption of such bureaucratic norms was completed a long time ago in the SWP even as it continues to pay lip service to Leninist norms.

By some standards, the SWP is even more egregious in dumping long-hold positions sans explanation than the CPUSA. Only four years ago the Militant posted excerpts from a document written by cult leader Jack Barnes for the 2006 convention that stated:

What the Israeli rulers are seeking to impose in order to consolidate Israel within borders of their own choosing is not a “peace process,” as it’s dubbed by liberals in the big-business media. It’s the consolidation of an Israel still based on the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian majority, together with the “right of return” of those of Jewish parentage—and only those of such parentage.

Only four years later, the Militant defends that “right of return”:

The point of the Law of Return, a key aspect of Israeli law since its founding, is not to foster religion, but to guarantee a safe haven for those facing Jew-hatred around the world.

That’s from another abysmal article titled “Debate flares in Israel over bill to set exclusive national rights for Jews” that appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue, one that also claims that Israel is “the most secular country in the Middle East”, a formulation that is associated with the Israel lobby. Israel is also flattered as the most democratic:

The 1948 declaration also promised Arab residents “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” While Israel was created through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws are widely used today by Arab citizens to fight discrimination in jobs, housing and government services, and for the exercise of political rights.

Palestinians see it differently. In a document titled “History of the Palestinians in Israel” published by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the authors state:

Israel never sought to assimilate or integrate the Palestinian population, treating them as second-class citizens and excluding them from public life and the public sphere. The state practiced systematic and institutionalized discrimination in all areas, such as land dispossession and allocation, education, language, economics, culture, and political participation. Successive Israeli governments maintained tight control over the community, attempting to suppress Palestinian/Arab identity and to divide the community within itself. To that end, Palestinians are not defined by the state as a national minority despite UN Resolution 181 calling for such; rather they are referred to as “Israeli Arabs,” “non-Jews,” or by religious affiliation.

In light of this, it is most telling that the Militant article refers to Arab citizens rather than Palestinians.

So what do we make of all this, a question more pressing for ex-members like me who not only spoke numerous times on Israel and the Palestinians at public meetings (my family was very pro-Zionist) but devoted time and money to an organization that we saw as principled and fearless on the Middle East.

The turn toward Israel seems to have begun with a spate of articles in 2006 that took up the question of “Jew-hatred”, a term the sect prefers to anti-Semitism even if it has no currency outside their circles. It was linked with some accuracy to a number of articles that had begun to appear blaming the Israel lobby for promoting a foreign policy that was inimical to American interests—the kind of article associated with realpolitik academics like Mearsheimer and Walt. Needless to say, such articles don’t constitute an ‘existential threat’ to Jews as if they could lead to concentration camps and all the rest. But you wouldn’t know that from hysterical articles such as “More middle-class radicals promote Jew-hatred”  that appeared in the May 15, 2006 Militant:

The dangerous logic of such arguments peddling Jew hatred (to say “anti-Semitism” would be putting it mildly) should not be lost on working people. Such conspiracy theories have been the stock-in-trade of ultrarightists and fascists—mortal enemies of the working class and its allies. Petras’s arguments also point to the political evolution of many middle-class “socialists” like him.

But this was just the opening act in the farce that would follow. In 2009 a startling article appeared under the title “’Zionism,’ its use today, not in 1948” by Norton Sandler. He blithely assures his readers that Zionism existed once upon a time but no longer:

The Palestinian population in the West Bank and in Gaza is approaching 4 million. Faced with these demographic trends, the majority of the Israeli ruling class has given up the dream of a “Greater Israel.” They are forced to opt for what they consider the only pragmatic solution—maintaining a majority Jewish state within borders of their own choosing. This is hardly the Zionist movement’s dream of an Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

This is really atrocious given the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Since the Jordan River is the eastern border of the West Bank, does anybody doubt that Israel’s goal is to expand settlements throughout the West Bank until it is effectively part of Greater Israel or whatever it is called? Sandler’s article serves as Zionist propaganda. Make no mistake about it.

Just a little background on Sandler’s article. He first used the formulation of Zionism not existing today in a talk he gave to a gathering of the SWP’s co-religionists in London. This prompted a letter to the paper by Joaquin Bustelo, a former member:

I think the position expressed by Norton Sandler in the Militant that “There is no Zionist movement today” is mistaken. This reactionary European colonial-settler national movement still exists, and has as its maximum expression the state of Israel, as well as organized expressions in other countries in the form of groups to organize or lobby for aid to Israel and so on.

Unfortunately, Sandler’s statement leads him to further say that Zionism “has become an epithet … a synonym for ‘Jew’ that helps fuel Jew-hatred.” This is a completely unwarranted concession to those who say any criticism or opposition to the state of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.

Finally, while the Militant projects a “perspective” of a united struggle by all working people in the region for a democratic, secular Palestine, that cannot be a substitute for expressing unconditional solidarity with and support to the just national struggle of the Palestinian people, something which unfortunately is not mentioned in the article.

Joaquín Bustelo
Atlanta, Georgia

Of course, the Militant dropped the demand for a democratic, secular Palestine not too long after this letter appeared.

So how did this all happen? Is Israel paying off Jack Barnes, the cult leader? I doubt that any sensible state power would waste its money, especially on a bizarre sect that exists on the fringes of American politics.

The explanation is social in nature—or to put it another way, the lack of a social foundation. Groups on the left to one extent or another reflect social pressures. For example, the French Trotskyist movement in 1968 adapted to the ultraleft student movement. The CP in the USA adapts to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It is through social interaction with a broader milieu that such parties formulate strategy and tactics. When a party’s social base is progressive, such as the Bolshevik’s in 1917, the results are salutary. When, however, it rests on a questionable social base such was the case of the Second International and the trade union bureaucracy in 1914, the results are disastrous.

Apart from such considerations there is the world of tiny sects that have no social base such as the SWP or the Socialist Equity Party or the Spartacist League. They tend to have a relationship to a great genius whose ideas are fairly unpredictable. It is worth mentioning that the SWP’s politics are far more capricious than the other two groups for the simple reason that its leader seems more unmoored from a stable base such as was the case with Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”.

Extending the flight metaphor a bit further, the membership of the SWP put itself in the hands of a pilot who was as mad in his own way as Andreas Lubitz. While nobody has died as a result of their membership in the SWP, it is hard to argue with the proposition that the party’s wreckage is strewn across the ground as a result of the megalomania and flawed analyses of its potentate.


  1. This was posted to Marxmail:

    On 3/29/15 4:38 PM, Joseph Catron wrote:
    > One small technical note, probably only of interest to movement geeks:
    > I’m not sure it’s correct to say Finkelstein “opposes” BDS anymore.
    > His current position is difficult to summarize, and perhaps a little
    > confused (not necessarily in a pejorative sense).
    > http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/peace-or-palestinian-surrender-interview-norman-finkelstein-1768836682

    Comment by louisproyect — March 29, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

  2. Good analysis.

    I share your view that they’re hardly worth bothering about, but their warm fuzzies about Zionism and Israel is hard to just ignore, They are treading the same path as the social-chauvinists of the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) and its pater familias, Sean Matgamna. Indeed, the Barnes Gang’s position on the invasion and occupation of Iraq was very similar to the AWL’s. Barnes called the US occupation authority “a soft protectorate” and, like the Matgamnaites, reckoned that the imperialist occupation provided political space for the Iraqi working class to organise. God bless those imperialist occupations, eh?!

    In fact, the imperialist invasion and occupation not only killed large numbers of Iraqis but also unleashed sectarian terror that weakened the working class.

    I don’t think Barnes has been right abut anything for a helluva long time. He continued to claim the PLO was leading the struggle for Palestinian liberation,. long after its dominant leadership had sold out; he continued to claim that the ANC was opening the road to socialism in South Africa when it was actually implementing neo-liberal economic policies and closing off the road to the full emancipation of the black working class in South Africa; he continued to claim that Sinn Fein was leading the struggle for Irish national liberation long after the leadership of SF/IRA around Adams and McGuinness had done a deal with the Brits by which they got to co-administer Britain’s colony in the north-east of Ireland, closing off the national liberation struggle; he claimed that the first Gulf War was the “opening guns of World War 3”; he claimed that the Cubans wouldn’t support the crushing of Solidarnosc by the regime in Poland in the early 1980s; grief back in the 1970s he even claimed there wouldn’t be an end to the radicalisation of that period before the question of power was posed in the US!!!! And on and on and on,

    In the meantime his ultra-Stalinist organisational practices, coupled with political error piled upon political error, have cleared the membership out of the SWP in a way not even the McCarthyite and wider Cold War period could.

    Yet he is Dear Leader for life of the cult that remains from the wreckage of the old SWP. And gathered around him is a core of sycophants who repeat his gibberish. And if today the gibberish is then opposite of yesterday’s gibberish, they still repeat it as gospel.

    On top of that, he and Mary-Alice lead privileged lifestyles, far removed from actual workers’ lives and far removed from the lives of the poor saps who make up the ranks.

    Isolated from the working class, the mass movement, and even their own lowly members, Master Jack and Miss Mary-A,ice are subject to all kinds of alien class pressures. I’m always amused by their nonsense about the “petty-bourgeois left”, because Barnes and Waters are petty-bourgeois through and through and their socio-economic reality is reflected in their personal attitudes of entitlement to privileges and in their accommodation with imperialism.

    And for an analysis of the Israeli elections by someone who, unlike Jack Barnes, is a veteran working class and anti-imperialist activist and knows what they’re talking about, check out Tony Greenstein’s article: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/israeli-elections-why-the-right-won/


    Comment by Phil F — March 29, 2015 @ 9:02 pm

  3. FYI: the editorial from the same issue.


    Comment by Dave — March 29, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

  4. Is that editorial supposed to make the SWP look any less toxic?

    Comment by louisproyect — March 29, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

  5. Good one, Louis!

    Comment by John B. — March 29, 2015 @ 9:44 pm

  6. I was going to commit on the nature of so-called Zionism and post-Zionism but then I saw the author had made this reference to the plane crash in France on Tuesday this week: “[. . .] a pilot who was as mad in his own way as Andreas Lubitz”.

    This is a disgusting comment, not least because it is not justified by evidence. The crash investigation team has made no report, it has not offered any explanation of the crash, it has made no assessment of the mental health of any of the flight crew. Others have speculated, offering opinions from afar, and usually lacking any of the necessary competence.

    Both physical and mental illness are a suffering, as it is to be ruled by another class and their agents. Communists know better than to be carried along by prejudice and to judge without adequate evidence or competence. I had assumed that the author would not have pre-judged why the plane crashed.

    The rational course for the author is to withdraw this comment, & apologise for damning not just the co-pilot but a persistently discriminated group, perhaps one-in-six of us, namely those who at some time in their life have, or will, become mentally ill.

    Comment by Jara Handala — March 29, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

  7. You must be crazy to demand that I apologize especially since I have already written two posts lauding Michel Houellebecq.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 29, 2015 @ 10:11 pm

  8. Hilario. Please note I did not demand, I simply pointed out what is rational.

    The President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) made this statement on Friday:

    “The loss of the GermanWings Airbus is a ghastly horror. Until the facts are established, we should be careful not to rush judgements. Should it be the case that one pilot had a history of depression, we must bear in mind that so do several million people in this country. It is also true that depression is usually treatable. The biggest barrier to people getting help is stigma and fear of disclosure. In this country we have seen a recent fall in stigma, an increase in willingness to be open about depression and most important of all, to seek help.

    “We do not yet know what might be the lessons of the loss of the Airbus, but we caution against hasty decisions that might make it more, not less, difficult for people with depression to receive appropriate treatment. This will not help sufferers, families or the public.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2015/mar/27/germanwings-crash-details-emerge-of-the-co-pilot-who-crashed-his-plane-live-updates (it is not on the College’s own site)

    The President was also quoted in a newspaper yesterday:

    Comment by Jara Handala — March 29, 2015 @ 10:56 pm

  9. Why is it that some people pick out one small, passing thing in an entire post and focus on that exclusively, and simply say nothing about the actual topic of the post?

    On a more serious note, BarnesWaters Inc are propped up by not only 90 or so members, but several hundred ex-members who pay substantial amounts in sustainers. Isn’t it about time these folk stopped enabling BarnesWaters mini-empire?

    I think any of those folks who have any scruples or political principles left would stop giving money to this cult which is increasingly accommodating to US imperialism while slandering the anti-imperialist left, the garbage about Israel and Zionism and BDS being the latest manifestation of this.


    Comment by Phil F — March 30, 2015 @ 2:32 am

  10. For me, this really seems to explain a lot of the behavior I see on the authoritarian/sectarian left:

    “The explanation is social in nature—or to put it another way, the lack of a social foundation. Groups on the left to one extent or another reflect social pressures.”

    You have a “line” that’s developed by a small group of people. Then a slightly larger group of people united around that “line” and push it as if it’s been the gospel truth since the beginning of time.

    Comment by srogouski — March 30, 2015 @ 8:51 am

  11. On a small matter. The Great Israel theory had little to do with the West Bank though it’s inclusive of it. As laid out by Ben Gurion and other Zionists, the idea was to start with all of Lebanon south of the Lehani River to be annexed (for the water and the land, the present population of Shia Lebanese notwithstanding). It would incorporate, depending on what map one used as developed by various Zionist trends in the last 60 years, all of Jordan, all of Lebanon, Syria, the Sinai, and so on. It was quite an ambitious project.

    Otherwise, a very good article.

    Comment by David Walters — March 30, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

  12. What I don’t get is – the SWP could have gone round the bend on any number of issues. They could have decided that the PRC is building communism, or libertarianism is good for workers. Why Israel? .There’s nothing in the SWP’s history that presages this turn, and I don’t believe it’s meant to appease a hidden Zionist current among supporters. Is it just capricious? Has Barnes been corresponding with Les Evans?

    Comment by Ethan Young — March 30, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

  13. Ethan, I have the same reaction. There is nothing in its history. Basically Barnes decided to create something brand new in the early 80s. It has been a disaster.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 30, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

  14. A discussion has been taking place for a number of years in the SWP on Israel and the Palestinian struggle. The new position is not just that of one person, but rather one adopted by the majority of members. Hopefully, a document will be published. Someday.

    Comment by jaysinn — March 30, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

  15. The US wants detente in the Middle East to clear the decks for a confrontation with China. This is the cause of US annoyance with Israel at the moment and their talks with Iran.

    Comment by jay — March 30, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

  16. To follow up on Joe Catron’s comment on the BDS/Finkelstein/Chomsky issue, the primary disagreement has to do with the lack of explicit BDS (official Omar Barghouti Brand BDS) support for a 2-state solution (international law). It also has to do with whether the “S” is even relevant, and whether the “B” should include academic and cultural boycotts (Chomsky). Both Finkelstein and Chomsky reiterate that they have long supported “D”, even prior to brand BDS, which dates to 2004. Finkelstein claims, I think correctly, that the success of Divestment on college campuses, especially at University of California campuses, has largely been supportive of international law/2 states, unlike Brand BDS strictly speaking.

    Comment by David Green — March 30, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

  17. Of course the new position is the product of one person. It originates with Barnes, who has been shifting the cult to the right on questions to do with imperialism.

    I think the chief factor involved in the new position is that Barnes is clinically nuts these days. Frank Lovell noted back in the early 1980s that Barnes was showing signs of psychosis. Given that his whole existence is an isolated one – he’s isolated from the ranks of the cult and from the working class (although he certainly isn’t isolated from petty-bourgeois privilege) – he has developed all kinds of (to put it kindly) quirky positions. The most notable are ones which bend to the pressure of US imperialism. It was evident around the invasion and occupation of Iraq and now it’s evident around Zionism and Israel.

    Anyone who claims that Zionism no longer exists as a movement and that Israel is not a Zionist state is simply not on this planet, but dwelling in a parallel universe. And all the little cult followers and sycophants trail along belong the crazy dude, mistaking his madness for originality and greatness.

    Even as their cult goes down the gurgler.


    Comment by Phil F — March 31, 2015 @ 8:30 pm

  18. Taking the other little orbiting cults with them. The Iceland group has already gone. The Swedish group has already gone.

    At present I’m writing some articles about the NZ group and its decline. Starting with: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/the-socialist-action-league-introduction-to-an-autopsy/

    Comment by Phil F — March 31, 2015 @ 8:33 pm

  19. Ha-ha! So funny. I bought a wine aerator from Amazon for red wine. When I told my wife that it is a “gurgler”, she laughed. This is how it sounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsYp4-h6Ucg

    Comment by louisproyect — March 31, 2015 @ 8:35 pm

  20. I have to say the SWP are really outdoing themselves these days. From the Feb. 11 issue of The Militant:

    “. . Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who won passage of that law [Act 10], has decided there’s no need to push for a state right-to-work law, given the already weakened condition of the unions. In addition to the fall in the number of organized government workers, private-sector union membership in Wisconsin is below 7 percent. . .”

    Walker signed “right-to work” into law on March 9.

    And let’s not forget this gem from the Jan. 19 issue:

    “. . .The protests were dealt a blow by the effects of provocative ultraleft actions at demonstrations in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that created an atmosphere in which a disturbed individual like Ismaaiyl Brinsley felt encouraged to assassinate two New York police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, Dec. 20. . .”

    Comment by John B. — March 31, 2015 @ 9:03 pm

  21. Or what about when Barnes declared a few years back that Islamic fundamentalism no longer existed, or not as any serious movement/force. And all the little cult sycophants duly repeated “Islamic fundamentalism does not exist anymore”. I think he said it’s “highpoint” was some time in the 1970s!!!

    And now the line is that Isalmic fundamentalism is a really powerful force.

    And all the little cult sycophants, without batting an eye, repeat “Islamic fundamentalism is a really powerful force”.

    They’re just a bunch of asses. Except asses are actually useful.


    Comment by Phil F — March 31, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

  22. And linking the “ultralefts” to the killing of the cops is an utter disgrace. It’s just a step away from felon-setting. And not a very big step either.

    In fact, recently Barnes seems to be testing the water for a softer line on the police as well.

    Comment by Phil F — March 31, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

  23. Oh, I forgot this one, from the Feb. 23 issue:

    “. . Broken windows was implemented in New York subways in 1990 and in the city at large in 1994. Murders in the city peaked with 2,605 in 1990 and have declined almost every year since. The shift to cops patrolling in communities of the oppressed using preventive police policies — under the impact of the rise of the fight for Black rights — is a factor. ”

    “Broken windows policing” as a result of the civil rights movement. Now that’s a unique analysis.

    Comment by John B. — March 31, 2015 @ 9:24 pm

  24. I think this is a very good reply to Barnes! There has been only two occasions where I have agreed with you on this document and on Kosovon independence during 2008! These documents I have mentioned is the only documents you wrote which were semi-Trotskyist. Do you know if layers of the Jewish middle class are moving towards Trotskyism? There are Jewish middle class layers going further into opposition with Zionism. An indication of this is Rachael Horwitz is now a lot more supportive of BDS, which she opposed several months ago. This represents a move to the left!

    Comment by defendtrotskyism — April 1, 2015 @ 10:34 pm

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