Marxists and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war

Buildings destroyed in Syria during the Yom Kippur war

Just over fifty years after the Arab-Israeli war fought from 6 to 25 October 1973 – also known as the Yom Kippur war as it began with a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holy day – Socialism Today is reprinting an article first published in November 1973. Written by Peter Taaffe for an internal bulletin of Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, it takes up the arguments on the Israel-Palestine conflict of various groups on the left at that time.


Yom Kippur was an important moment in world perspectives, triggering an oil embargo against the Western powers and the subsequent recession ending the long economic boom that followed world war two, an unrepeatable ‘golden era’ for capitalism.

In the 1973 conflict Israel suffered its greatest number of casualties since the war that accompanied the formation of the state in 1948. That the October 7 attack this year saw its greatest losses since 1973 only emphases the significance of today’s events – and, with the slaughter in Gaza, confirms again that capitalism can provide no way out of the horrific cycle of endless bloodshed in the Middle East.

The conflict in 1973, of course, took place in a profoundly different historical era than today. World relations in the period after the second world war were shaped by the underlying clash of systems between the capitalist countries of the West, under the domination of US imperialism, and the non-capitalist Stalinist states of the East, the cold war. This world balance of forces, which came to an end with the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe from 1989, had its reflection in the strategically vital oil-rich Middle East too.

As the article points out, both Egypt and Syria, the leading protagonists in the 1973 Arab coalition that included ‘expeditionary forces’ from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Morocco, received the bulk of their arms and economic aid from the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy. A small contingent of Cubans fought in Syria – where the regime that had come to power in the 1960s had moved further against capitalism and landlordism in order to consolidate its rule against the resistance of the old elites and foreign capitalist interests.

But Stalinism was still, objectively, as the article says, along with US imperialism one of “the two most powerful counter-revolutionary forces on the globe”. It intervened not to further the social and economic interests and national rights of the workers and poor masses but the power and prestige considerations of the bureaucratic rulers of the deformed or degenerated workers’ states. Then, as now, the independent action of the working classes and poor – in the region and internationally – held the key to the situation.

The article, written originally for internal circulation, has been edited stylistically; for example, so that contemporary figures, well-known at the time, are now more fully introduced. Sadat, for his first appearance in the text, is now “the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat”, Hussein, “the Jordanian King Hussein”, and so on. But stylistically edited only. The political content, and the clarity with which Marxist ideas are applied to the complex and difficult question of the Middle East, is untouched, and stands as a testament to our tradition.

Of the groups dealt with in the article that can be broadly traced to organisations still operating today, the International Socialists became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977, and Workers’ Fight were predecessors of the Alliance for Workers Liberty.


The Middle East and the left

As in 1967, the war in the Middle East has shown all the sects to be incapable of taking a firm class position. Without exception, some more openly than others, they have come down on the side of the ‘the Arabs against the Zionists’. Those who accuse us of ‘abstractions’ themselves sin the most on this score.

In 1967 the pro-Arab nationalist position of the International Socialists (IS) was summed up in the immortal phrase of Roger Protz, the present editor of Socialist Worker: “Scratch a left-wing Jew and you will find a Zionist underneath”.

This time they appear at first to be groping towards our position by calling for the construction of “a socialist Middle East with full rights for minorities”. (Socialist Worker, 27 October 1973) A step forward? On the contrary, the ‘arguments’ backing the Arab nationalist regimes, contained in the same article, cancel out the fine sentiments for ‘a socialist Middle East’.

This is what they say: “Only the working class can appeal on a class basis to the Israeli workers and convince them that an Arab victory would not mean that they would be thrown into the sea”. The same position as our own you may think. But in the very next sentence they add: “The socialist revolution will overthrow Arab and Israeli regimes, but the racialist nature of Israel means that any (their emphasis) Israeli regime will oppose the Arab revolution… That is why we support the national struggle of the Arabs against Zionism despite the reactionary nature of the Arab regimes”.

If anything can be made of the muddle it is that the Israeli working class can never be won to a class position so long as Israel exists, hence we (the IS) must support the reactionary Arab regimes in their attempt to eliminate Israel. But even a ten year-old child can see that the greater the external threat to Israel the more the Israeli working class is driven into the arms of its own capitalist class. At the same time the IS, in common with all the sects, fail to demonstrate precisely why and how ‘victory’ for the Arab regimes will further the socialist revolution in the Middle East.

Capitalist incapacity

The ‘reactionary Arab regimes’ have for 25 years been incapable of integrating the dispossessed Palestinian people because of the blind alley of bourgeois and feudal rule. At the same time they have kept the Palestinians as pariahs and a focus for the discontent of their own working class and peasantry. The promise of a ‘final solution’ to the Palestinian problem and, since 1967, the recapturing of the occupied territories, has been used as a safety valve for the growing mass opposition against the social conditions in all the Arab countries.

In what way will a partial ‘victory’ for the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, for example the ceding back of some of the ‘occupied territories’ as now seems probable, further the socialist revolution in Egypt? On the contrary, Sadat, who has faced since coming to power in 1970 a rising opposition from the student youth and workers – characterising some of them as ‘alien Marxist’ elements – in defeat undoubtedly faced the prospect of overthrow and with him possibly the bourgeois regime in Egypt. It is precisely for this reason that American imperialism is pressurising the Israeli capitalists into making some territorial concessions. If these concessions are made then the position of Sadat will be temporarily strengthened, that is bourgeois Bonapartism in Egypt will be given a new lease of life. In no way will the social revolution in Egypt be pushed forward.

The sects also precisely fail their own test of ‘practicality’. Can the reactionary Arab regimes eliminate the state of Israel? Israel is a client state of US imperialism. While for its own ends, it is in a position to force the Israeli regime to make certain concessions in relation to the occupied territories, at the same time it would be incapable of accepting the total elimination of the Israeli state. If such a threat were posed they would be forced to militarily intervene. Let us remember that in September 1970, during the civil war in Jordan, when the Syrian deformed workers’ state intervened to assist the Palestinian guerrillas, American imperialism was preparing to send in forces to assist the Jordanian King Hussein. How much more so would it be prepared to do this to ensure the maintenance of Israel!

Nor, it may be added, does the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy wish to see the destruction of the state of Israel. On the contrary, the Arab-Israeli conflict serves the aim of furthering the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the area. It is for this reason that the Stalinist bureaucracy and US imperialism supply just so many arms as to guarantee a stalemate. Without the intervention of the working class of the area, Arab and Jew, the conflict will continue to fester, every so often resulting in further bloody wars. As with Northern Ireland, it is only the working class which can affect real unification and lasting peace in the area.

The permanent revolution

The problem of Israel is on a par with that of Northern Ireland. We have shown that the Provisional IRA’s methods for unifying Ireland are neither desirable – even if successful, unification would be at the cost of civil war, and an enormous reinforcing of sectarianism – but, more importantly, that it is not possible on a bourgeois basis. The theory of the permanent revolution as applied to Ireland means that only the working class can complete the bourgeois democratic revolution – unification – by coming to power in the whole of Ireland. This in turn presupposes the forging of class unity between Catholic and Protestant workers. This naturally leads us to oppose the terrorist and guerrilla struggle in Northern Ireland, because it postpones the day of workers’ unity.

In the same way in the Middle East, it is only the Jewish and Arab working class which can complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, unity of the area, land reform, and the expulsion of imperialism including the Zionist capitalists and their state. But this again presupposes the lifting of the ‘external threat’ which pushes the Jewish masses into the arms of their own capitalists.

We proceed from the interests of the working masses of the area and internationally. As pointed out, the victory of Israel would in no way assist the revolution, nor would the victory of the Sadat regime in reclaiming part of the occupied territories. “Truth is concrete”, repeated Trotsky again and again. We have supported the colonial revolution, even under bourgeois leadership, because the victory in one country pushes forward the movement in the rest of the colonial world, it weakens imperialism and at the same time pushes forward the struggles of the metropolitan working class. In other words, it is in the interests of the colonial masses and the cause of world socialism that the colonial revolution should be supported. Support for Sadat’s aims as suggested by the sects fails to meet this criteria. The conflict internationally serves the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the one side and American imperialism on the other, the two most powerful counter-revolutionary forces on the globe. In the area itself it is grist to the mill of the Israeli and Arab rulers. This class approach will be found nowhere in the material of the sects.

No class understanding

The IS, in their tortuous attempts to justify their support for the ‘Arab reactionary regimes’, come up with some truly amazing arguments: “The basic structure of Israeli society is based on a racialist concept which makes Israel a necessary channel of imperialist influence against the Arab states”, they write. “The Arabs are entitled to receive help from the Russians as were the Vietnamese… As in Vietnam the crucial question is not whether this or that imperialism is trying to use one side or the other. They always do. The question is, is either side a puppet of imperialism?” (Ibid). So it is because Israel is ‘racialist’ and a ‘client state’ and the Arab states are not, that the latter must be supported.

The first thing to be noted is that there is not an iota of class understanding in such notions. At no time is it a question for the IS of what serves the social revolution. Secondly, from the point of view of the IS the Arab regimes are as much ‘clients’ of the Russian ‘imperialists’ as are the Israelis of American imperialism. Syria and Egypt receive the bulk of their arms and economic aid from the Russian bureaucracy. The aim of the Russian ‘imperialists’ and its ‘clients’ is to prevent the socialist revolution in the area and hence logically should earn the opposition of the IS. At the same time, the Arab regimes almost without exception also persecute their own minorities, restricting certain positions on the basis of religion etc. Even in Syria, a deformed workers’ state, the position of the president is reserved for Muslims only. These arguments of the IS are a rationalisation of their opportunist adaptation to Arab nationalism. The same applies to the other sects.

The IMG (the International Marxist Group, the ‘official section’ of the Fourth International in Britain) have given their blessing to Sadat and the Syrian president Hafiz Assad: “The official war aims of Egypt and Syria – liberation of the occupied territories – are entirely legitimate”. This is an absolutely incredible statement for a so-called ‘Trotskyist’ tendency to make. Even when Marxists have supported a colonial bourgeoisie against imperialism at no time have they identified with the ‘official’ aims of the landlords and capitalists. In the case of the war between the forces of the Chinese bourgeois nationalist Chiang Kai-Chek and Japan from 1937, Trotskyists gave critical support to the former but in no way identified with the ‘war aims’ of Chiang’s Kuomintang government, but strove at all times to develop the independent class position of the working class. The “official war aims” of Egypt and Syria as opposed to their public posture was to cynically take just a slice of the ‘occupied territories’ and then force the “big power involvement and settlement” so loudly denounced by the IMG.

‘Revolutionary war’

The other demand of the IMG is for “the arming and training of the Arab masses”. This is of course borrowed from the material we published in 1967, particularly when we contrasted the arming of 300,000 workers and peasants in Syria to the fear of taking such measures by the Egyptian and other Arab states.

But the lynchpin of the whole IMG position has been their call for a ‘revolutionary war’, moreover one of a ‘prolonged character’. We need to be clear on this issue if we are to counter these arguments. Firstly, in 1967, as a propaganda point during the six-day war, against the regimes of Gamal Nasser, the Egyptian president, Jordan’s Hussein and the other states, we pointed out that they were incapable of conducting a revolutionary war. During the recent war we made the same point, but we spelt out precisely what we meant as a precondition for revolutionary war. In Egypt the arming of the workers, expropriation of the landlords and capitalists as in Syria, but with workers’ and peasants’ councils, democratisation of the army, abolition of the officer caste, etc. But such a regime in Egypt, with the working class in the saddle, would have such an attractive power for the Israeli workers that there would be no need for a ‘protracted’ war. It would lead to the splitting of Israeli society on class lines.

The IMG do not mean this when they call for a ‘revolutionary war’. On the contrary, they envisage a guerrilla struggle à la Vietnam, involving the whole of the Arab world against Israel. Hence the use of ‘protracted’ when calling for a ‘revolutionary war’.

The IMG also ignore the whole experience of the Trotskyist movement when they call for a ‘protracted revolutionary war’ irrespective of time and place. It is one thing during a war, like the last clash, to call for such measures; it is another thing entirely for us to be advocates of ‘revolutionary war’ in general. In the Russian-Finnish war, or in Poland in 1939, Trotsky called on the partisans of the Fourth International to support the Red Army by its own means and on its own programme – assisting in the expropriation of the landlords and capitalists, but calling for soviets and, at the same time, conducting revolutionary work amongst the Russian troops aimed at the overthrow of the Stalin clique.

Although Trotsky was prepared to advocate critical support for the extension of the revolution in Finland and Poland, even though this was mainly by bureaucratic military means, at the same time, he opposed the idea of spreading the revolution by ‘revolutionary war’ as a general aim. Only under exceptional circumstances could this be used, mainly to assist a maturing revolution as in Poland in 1920, or to prevent a defeat of the working class which would be a catastrophe for the world proletariat as in Germany in 1933.

To advocate ‘revolutionary war’ as a universal panacea in the Middle East is not Trotskyism but a variant of Maoism. And it is precisely in the Maoist sense that the IMG advocate their support for a ‘revolutionary war’, ie guerrilla struggle which gradually converges on the towns.

Apologists for Arab nationalism

But it is the tiny sects of Workers’ Fight and the Chartists who clearly draw out all the necessary false conclusions implicit in the positions of the IMG and the International Socialists. The latter only infer what is spelt out in the material of Workers’ Fight and the Chartists. An open, unashamed, disgracefully uncritical support is given by Workers’ Fight to Arab nationalism. In an article headed ‘Why Israel must be defeated’, they write: “A decisive and crushing defeat for Israel will be even better news for revolutionary workers and enemies of imperialism everywhere”. Then with unconscious humour it adds: “Yet the world’s working class, including the Israeli working class, though it doesn’t yet know it (our emphasis), has an interest in the defeat of Israel”. (Workers Fight, No.34, 20 October 1973).

There is not an atom of socialism in their proposed solution, “a secular democratic state in which the Palestinians have full right to return to their homeland with compensation and full equality with Palestinian Jews”. This is not one whit different to the position of Yassar Arafat’s Fatah movement. There is no attempt to even pay lip service to socialism as a solution. Even worse is the emphasis placed on ‘Palestinian Jews’ in the above quotation, clearly implying, or at least leaving open, the prospect of expulsion for ‘Western’ and other Oriental Jews. It is fortunate indeed that Workers Fight will never have any influence in the broad labour movement apart from those few eccentrics who exist on the periphery of the working class.

The arguments of the Chartists are of more importance to us if not only because they are an irritant in the Labour Party Young Socialists. We can see the absurd position in which it is possible to land if a tendency does not start from a firm class position. Because to them left equals support for the Arabs and right support for the Israelis, they write incredible anti-Marxist nonsense such as the following in the November issue of their journal.

The Labour Party leader Harold Wilson, they say, “has been attacking the Tory government for its role in not supplying arms to Israel for use against the Arab states. In so doing he has taken a position to the right of even the Tories” (their emphasis). As if it isn’t a question of the position of the Tory premier Ted Heath being determined by the material interests of British imperialism in the Middle East and Wilson’s by the sympathy which he considers exists in the labour movement for Israel. But the very fact that the Chartists can imply that the Tories have taken a ‘left’ stance is an indication just how they would succumb to hostile class pressures were they ever to develop as a substantial force.

Equally monstrous, is their writing off of the Israeli working class, the most powerful proletariat together with the Egyptians in the area: “The Israeli working class is so lacking in consciousness and independence that in a sense it still scarcely exists”. This ‘scarcely existing’ working class has engaged in a wave of strikes in the last year which forced the Israeli premier Golda Meir to talk of the ‘danger’ (ie to the capitalists) “on the internal front” being much “more dangerous than the threat on the external front”.

The Chartists couple this with an out and out apologia for Arab nationalism: “Of course of the many factions and tendencies leading the Arab struggle today, not one has any intention of trying to drive the Jews into the sea!” Only ignoramuses or those who consciously set out to dress up in the image of the Arab reactionaries could possibly print such statements.

During the war itself, the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in an interview in The Times, specifically mentioned that the European and other ‘Western Jews’ would be expelled from the area upon the defeat of Israel. Quite apart from this, it is only petit-bourgeois idealists who would take the statements of the Arab bourgeoisie that the Jews ‘would not be driven into the sea’ as good coin. How many times did the Zionists before 1948 precisely ‘assure’ the Palestinians that they would not be expelled, that Jew and Arab could live together in Israel, etc. Discrimination, persecution, and expulsion of minorities is absolutely inevitable on a bourgeois basis. Such would be the fate of the Jewish population if, in the unlikely event, Israel was eliminated on a capitalist basis. It is the consciousness of this fact which invests the struggle of the Israeli people with its fanatical character.

A socialist federation

One thing that is clear from this brief resume of the position of the sects on the Middle East, is that we are the only tendency which has capitulated neither to Arab nationalism nor Zionism. Our position, with the main fighting slogan being the call for the socialist federation of the Middle East, expresses the real needs of the masses of the area. In Israel we would advocate a programme and perspective which based itself on opposing the imperialist policies of Zionism, which pointed to the Zionist state as being a bloody trap for the peoples of the area. At the same time, we hold out the prospect of a separate Jewish state and a separate Palestinian state if the peoples so desired on the basis of a socialist federation. Only a socialist federation could offer the possibility of solving both the social problems and the national rights of all the minorities both within Israel and throughout the Arab world.

In Egypt the forces of Marxism would advance a programme for the expropriation of the landlords and capitalists and the setting up of a democratic workers’ state. We would base ourselves upon the important Egyptian proletariat. In Syria, while defending the planned economy against imperialism, with arms in hand if necessary, the Marxists would at the same time call for soviets, election of all officials, etc.

The sects, by opportunistically bending to what they consider is a popular position amongst the Arabs in Britain – in Swansea the IS have accused us of ‘scabbing on the Arabs’ – will gain nothing of a lasting character. We, on the other hand, can begin – and have begun – to attract the best elements from amongst both the Jewish and Arab youth. Discussions with some of these comrades have shown that our position would find a favourable echo amongst the leftward-moving youth in both Israel and in the Arab countries. We must try to find the material means of reaching these forces with our programme and perspective.

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