The birth of the new left

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The Watershed of 1956

The events of 1956, the invasions of Suez and Hungary, gave birth to an independent anti-colonialist Left and sounded the death-knell for unthinking obedience to the Kremlin. It also marked the development of a new ideological opposition to Zionism and the start of a haemorrhaging of support for the state of Israel on the European Left.

The Movement for Colonial Freedom became an influential group in British political life – and many leading members of the British Left supported it. It wrote resolutions and framed policy for the British trade union movement. The Labour Left identified with Nasser’s efforts at the Bandung conference and effectively turned a blind eye to his domestic policies. Michael Foot concluded that Israel’s action in 1956 had been morally wrong and he had become thoroughly disillusioned with the Zionist experiment through the marginalisation of figures such as Moshe Sharett by Ben-Gurion.1 In the late 1950s, the British Labour party began to make contact with socialist parties in the Arab world including the Syrian Ba’athists and to explore the Palestinian refugee problem.

The line of the CPGB was to support the USSR’s pro-Arab position in 1956.2 The British Communists accused Israel of serving the interests of imperialism and that it was solely motivated by a desire for territorial expansion.

The Suez crisis simultaneously created a debate about Soviet anti-Semitism within the party. This did not happen overnight as there had been growing concern following the Slansky trial and the Doctors’ Plot. Hungary occupied a special place in the Soviet denunciation of ‘Zionism’. The first mention of Zionism as an agent of US imperialism had occurred in the first show trial in Eastern Europe when Laszlo Rajk, the Foreign Minister, was tried in Budapest in 1949. Defendants were asked if they were ‘Zionists’. One, András Szalai, told the prosecution that he had participated in ‘a Trotskyist Zionist movement’ since 1930. Along with Rajk, he was executed.

The CPGB’s National Jewish Committee, led by Chimen Abramsky and Hyman Levy, began to challenge Dutt’s unquestioning belief that the Soviet Union had solved its Jewish problem. Levy wrote Jews and the National Question and Abramsky published it. Their eventual departure from the CPGB on the issue of Soviet anti-Semitism was part of the much wider exodus after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the establishment of questioning periodicals such as The New Reasoner. Abramsky and Levy also wanted a reconsideration of Jewish nationalism. Dutt refused and was unmoved. He described Krushchev’s revelations about ‘the negative cult of the individual’ as ‘spots on the sun’.3 His acerbic review of Levy’s book was entitled An Anti-Marxist book on the Jewish Question.4

1956 was a year when many Communists discovered that its gods were in fact idols. Despite Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin, the Kremlin found Imre Nagy’s views in Hungary too much to bear – reinstating the multi-party system and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact were both heretical and against Soviet state interests. 1956 also bore witness to the return of the ragged survivors of Stalin’s Gulag after decades of incarceration and maltreatment. Krushchev even visited Tito in an attempt to patch up the Moscow-Belgrade rift. Suddenly the CPGB withdrew their approval for James Klugmann’s From Trotsky to Tito as required reading for members.

The leadership of Communist parties in Europe were deeply troubled, but they had invested their political lives and circumvented too many inconvenient truths to leave now. British Communist leaders, for example, received no answers about its members who had disappeared in the USSR. They inquired about Rose Cohen who had married the Comintern’s representative in the UK in the 1920s and returned with him to Moscow. She had actually been shot in November 1938. The missing Daily Worker correspondent in post-war Eastern Europe, Edith Bone, was more fortunate – she spent seven years in prison and was released after Stalin’s death. While the leadership of the British party was struck dumb by its lies and compromises, the rank and file spoke with their feet. The Soviet invasion of Hungary persuaded nearly a quarter of the party’s membership to depart including many industrial workers and trade union officials. 400,000 left the Italian party. It marked the end for wall-to-wall Stalinism. It was both a fragmentation and a reinvention of the Marxist Left in Europe.

The events of 1956 also symbolised the bankruptcy of social democracy to many a European socialist. Guy Mollet, one of the architects of the Suez fiasco was a social democrat – and social democrats in Europe had given no real lead on the problems of colonialism. For the adherents of Communism and its fellow travellers, the convoluted explanations which were offered for the invasion of Hungary, was an ideological and moral summersault too far. This sense of disillusionment with the expounders and justifiers of both Suez and Hungary created a third space for a New Left.

In Britain, the upsurge and disillusionment of 1956 manifested itself in the emergence of two journals, Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner. The latter was published by two party intellectuals, E. P. Thompson and John Saville, as an independent publication outside the party in mid-July 1956. The publication proclaimed that it would embellish ‘a rebirth of socialist principles ensuring that dogmatic attitudes and theoretical inertia do not return’.5 The party leadership moved quickly to try and shut down The New Reasoner. It finally suspended Thompson and Saville when they called upon the CPGB to dissociate itself from the Soviet intervention in Hungary.6 These periodicals provided a home for the ideologically shell shocked.

During the 1950s, Europe began to emerge from austerity of the immediate post-war years. This was also marked by a deepening generational conflict. The Old Left in Britain which defined itself by resistance to Nazism and the culture of class warfare believed that nothing had really changed since 1945. The same certainties were in place. The succeeding generation, however, was not so sure. It argued that post-war capitalism was actually profoundly different from what had gone before and that this new situation required a new analysis. In particular, the rise of consumerism had affected cultural attitudes which the Left had to recognise. Thus, E.P. Thompson and Raphael Samuel debated Stuart Hall’s article A Sense of Classlessness.7

The two periodicals merged to form New Left Review in 1959 under Stuart Hall’s editorship and modelled the offspring on Sartre’s Les Temps modernes. Subsequently under Perry Anderson’s editorship, there was an emphasis on ‘continental Marxism’ and the work of Gramsci. Yet some had doubts about the merger of the two periodicals and this led to yet another publication.8 Together with Thompson and Saville, Ralph Miliband, a disciple of Harold Laski and a Jewish refugee who had fled to Britain from Belgium in 1940, began to edit the Socialist Register in the early 1960s.

Miliband argued that ‘the deepening and the formal institutionalisation of the split between Communism and Social Democrats’ left little room for free thinking and intellectual discourse within the Marxist tradition.9 Trotsky’s writings were now being re-read. Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas were now being rediscovered. Marxism was also being distanced from Marxism-Leninism. Indeed one of the founders of the Universities and Left Review, Charles Taylor, considered Leninism to be ‘one of the great political disasters of the twentieth century’.10

The first issue of Socialist Register contained an appraisal of Egyptian Marxism and noted that the European Left was still seeking ‘a way out of its confusion’ regarding ‘Arab socialism’.11 After all, Nasser, Qassem and Ben Bella had suppressed their Communist parties. Yet the USSR had awarded Nasser the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.

This first New Left was keen to see Britain’s secession from the superpower bloc and for it to co-exist with the non-aligned countries of the developing world. On the one hand, it viewed support for orthodox Communism as being synonymous with unquestioning solidarity with the USSR. On the other, support for the Atlanticist strain of social democracy led to alignment with American policy. The British Labour party was divided between the Atlanticists who looked to Washington and the ‘positive neutralists’ who admired Nehru, Tito and Nasser.

Yet this desire to leave behind the ideological straitjacket that had incarcerated many an inquisitive mind was not shared by all who emerged from the traumatic soul-searching of 1956. Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci were reclaimed. They were not only viewed as martyrs to the cause of revolution, but unheeded prophets who could have guided it into different channels.

The Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain had split into several factions in 1950. Independent Marxist thinkers such as Gerry Healy, Tony Cliff and Ted Grant established their own groups – and their own ideological certainty. In addition, the International Marxist Group (IMG) officially represented the Fourth International in Britain. IMG’s approach of ‘from the periphery to the centre’ placed great faith in revolutionary endeavour in the developing world. It was able to successfully develop single issue campaigns such as the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. In contrast, despite the recruiting slogan ‘From Palestine to Vietnam: One Enermy! One Fight!’,12 a similar attempt to initiate a Palestine Solidarity Campaign at the end of the 1960s failed abysmally.

Tony Cliff was the moving force behind the Socialist Review in the 1950s and he wrote widely about Stalin and the USSR. He denounced the Soviet Union as a ‘state capitalist’ regime while remaining loyal to the tenets of Leninism whereas the Fourth International believed in the official definition of a degenerated workers’ state. For Cliff, there was no possibility that the Stalinists could form workers’ states. Yet there was virtually no mention of the use of ‘Zionism’ in the show trials or that many of the defendants were Jews. In February 1962, a sympathetic article about the plight of Soviet Jews appeared in the periodical under the pseudonym of M. Ben-Reuben. No mention was made in it of Zionism or Israel.13

Healy, more than his Trotskyist rivals, capitalised on the unease felt over Hungary and Suez. His Socialist Labour League (SLL) benefitted from defections from the CPGB and the Marxist group of the Labour League of Youth. The SLL was known even on the far Left in Britain for its sectarianism. Healy was a highly controversial leader with authoritarian beliefs – in the 1930s he had been an avid Stalinist, known for his assaults on Trotskyists.

Both Healy and Cliff cultivated people in the theatre and the arts. Vanessa and Corin Redgrave joined Healy while Cliff made headway amongst students and youth after 1968. Cliff recruited the writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens and the poet James Fenton. He also implemented a more centralised Leninist approach which resulted in several splits.

Such groups were prone to denunciations, defections and schisms. All attempted entryism into the Labour party at one time – with Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency exhibiting the deepest ideological belief in such an approach. This was a legacy from the earliest days of Trotskyism in the 1930s when it was realised that the early groups would not mushroom into mass parties. All eventually broke with the Labour party when the leadership judged the time to be right – and formed their own parties. Cliff’s Labour Socialists became the International Socialists and then the Socialist Workers’ Party. The number of IS branches increased dramatically in the early 1970s and the circulation of its publication, Socialist Worker increased by 70% in 1972 to 28,000.14 The paper also attacked Zionism in conspiratorial language. Healy transformed his Socialist Labour League into the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. Its publications compared Israel to Nazi Germany and during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 accused the Israelis of using poisonous gas ‘such as the ones used by the Nazis against the Jewish people’.15

Militant lasted until 1991 before it became the Socialist Party a few years later. All developed ties with sister groups in Europe. Militant had equivalents in Spain, France, Ireland, Greece, Sweden, West Germany and Belgium.16

The first New Left, emerging out of the intellectual openness of the lecture halls of Oxford in the 1950s found their approach, difficult and disconcerting.

This (first New Left) was in sharp contrast to the ‘hard’ left and Trotskyist sects, who by and large adopted a cynical but classically sectarian practice towards CND. They treated the peace movement as a ‘soft’ recruiting ground: to them, it was a movement dominated by misguided moral and religious enthusiasts, a few of whom could, however, be picked off for a more ‘serious’ enterprise and parachuted into the nitty-gritty of ‘real politics’ somewhere else. In this conception, ‘real politics’ is so often not where everybody else is, but always ‘somewhere else’.17

In addition, the Old Left of the pre-war years was growing more affluent by the 1960s and found itself distinctly at odds with the New Left. There now existed a different culture and a different mentality. A new generation was defining itself outside the political gridlines, laid down by the victory of 1945. By 1968, the year of student revolt, the political agenda was not simply one of class warfare and economic betterment, but of additional issues such as sexuality, feminism, peace, ecology, racism, community politics, music – and ‘the politics of the personal’.18 The advocacy of such issues was often defined by direct action and a broad antagonism towards parliamentary politics. In Europe, social democratic, socialist and communist parties gradually began to absorb these new ideas and themes.

In addition, there were anti-colonial struggles in the Belgian Congo, Portuguese Africa, Rhodesia and South Africa. The fight for national liberation in the Arab world was personified by the struggle of the FLN in Algeria against France. The cause of decolonisation and anti-imperialism loomed large. The struggle of the FLN for Algerian independence was certainly the cause celebre in France. Ben Bella, later President of Algeria, had also spoken of liberating Palestine from foreigners. All this struck a deep chord within the European Left and it had a profound effect on its previous identification with socialist Zionism.

In Israel, it had initiated an eventual split in the Communist party when Shmuel Mikunis, one of the party leaders, responded to Ben Bella in August 1964. He condemned the contamination of the anti-imperialist movement by ‘the bacteria of Arab chauvinism’. The Arabic publication of the party, al-Ittihad, refused to publish it.

For non-Jews on the French Left of the pre-war generation, the question of Israel became more and more perplexing. Jean-Paul Sartre supported the Algerian struggle and was a proponent of Nasser’s programme for ‘Arab socialism’. He also criticised Britain and France over Suez but like many members of the French Left, he was the bearer of a ‘double legacy’. He was scarred by the memory of what had happened to the Jews in France, following the defeat in 1940 – the discrimination, the betrayals, the deportations, the exterminations. He recognised the struggle of the Jews in 1947 in Palestine and argued that, following the withdrawal of British troops, the UN should have armed the Jews. He feared another massacre of the Jews by ‘Arab mercenaries awaiting the departure of the English’.19 In 1949, he commented that the establishment of the state of Israel was one of the few events ‘that allows us to preserve hope’.20 Yet he was silent about Israel’s collusion with the imperial powers in the Suez affair. His solidarity with the Jews stemmed from the time of the Nazi occupation. His solidarity with the Arabs grew out of the Algerian war.

This ‘double legacy’ of the Algerian struggle and fidelity to Israel was the predicament of the entire French Left. Sartre argued that the Left was unable to take a position between right and right and that it was up to the Jews and the Arabs to resolve this seemingly intractable situation through discussion. Sartre rationally therefore tried to create a space for a dialogue between the Arab Left and the Israeli Left. As an intellectuel engageé, Sartre’s neutrality was not always appreciated. As he commented in 1976:

I will never abandon this constantly threatened country whose existence ought not to be put into question...I know that my stance earns me the enmity of certain Arabs who cannot understand that one is able to be at the same time for Israel and for them.21

Yet Sartre was of a generation that had experienced the past. The mindset of the succeeding generation in France did not have that experience. Their ideological agenda was forged through opposition to ‘Algerie Francaise’ and the struggle of the NLF against the Americans in Vietnam. Socialist advocates for Israel such as Leon Blum were long dead. The mentors of the post-war generation were Frantz Fanon and Regis Debray. Their icons were Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh.

Yet there were exceptions. Michel Foucault’s pro-Israel stance caused a deep rift with his close friend, Gilles Deleuze.22

Even so, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth made a tremendous impact on the generation of the 1960s with its assault on the evils of colonialism. Its first chapter, ‘Concerning Violence’ commenced:
National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon.23

Fanon was contemptuous of the French Left and the PCF in particular. The latter had supported the liberation struggle in Indo-China, primarily because the Viet Minh were Communists. In the case of Algeria, the PCF called for peace, but not independence. It was believed that this was partly due to the PCF’s pandering to the white working class’s disdain for Arab workers in France and that there were often family ties to the colons.24 Fanon in particular had close relationships to individual Jews in Algeria and he was well aware of the FLN’s appeal to Algerian Jews in November 1956 – and the non-committal response of a ‘wait and see’ attitude despite the anti-Semitism of the colons.25

The post-war generation of the European Left also rejected their parents’ cultural and political values in a search for self-definition. In part, this search included evaluating the significance of the rise of Israel in 1948. Their commitment to repairing the world was viewed through the prism of decolonisation and anti-imperialism. The situation of the Arab world – and France’s colonial role in it – was both closer in time and of more immediate importance to the succeeding generation than the resistance of the Maquis and the deportation of the Jews.

As the New Left in France had neither experienced the assault on the Jews during the Nazi occupation nor witnessed the rise of the state of Israel in 1948, many adherents became politically desensitised on issues about Jews and Israel. This became more accentuated with the rise of Palestinian nationalism in the 1960s and when it became a cause for identification by sections of the Left.

The New Left could immediately identify attacks on Jews if they came from the Right. When the right wing press made comments that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the student revolt in 1968, was both a Jew and a German, there was a student demonstration around the statement that ‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands’. When the Left began proposing that the veteran socialist, Mèndes-France should replace De Gaulle, the right wing cry was ‘Mèndes Jerusalem’. When De Gaulle stopped the Left in its tracks in 1968 and turned the political tide, the Right came onto the streets to support him, chanting the slogan, ‘Cohn-Bendit à Dachau’. It seemed that the Vichy mentality had not been entirely abandoned, but merely been put into abeyance.

Yet whereas the Left reacted instinctively to right wing anti-Semitism, it was reticent to recognise it when it emerged from its own ranks – and especially if such an incident involved any mention of Israel. There was little comment about attacks on the remnant of Jewish communities in Arab states before, during and after the Six Day war. Reports in the press noted that Jews had been thrown from rooftops and balconies in Tripoli26 and that 600 Jews had been arrested in Egypt.27 In Aden, British troops intervened to save and evacuate the Jewish community – a community that had existed for almost two millennia. Boumedienne’s nationalist regime in Algeria did little to prevent discrimination against Jews and attacks on synagogues. Moreover, Fanon’s stature was diminished and his contribution marginalised. As neither an Arab nor a Muslim and not even a believer, he was accused of underestimating the power of Islam.28


Israel’s victory in the Six Day war over Nasser’s Egypt in June 1967 was particularly hard to digest in France. There were just too many stereotypes to absorb and it confused the French Left. On the eve of the Six Day war, amidst talk of another massacre of the Jews – the imagery was that of the emaciated Jew in the striped pyjamas and his post-war liberated successor, the socialist kibbutznik who made the desert bloom. During the war, the jackbooted Jewish conqueror emerged, aided and abetted by a coordinated Jewish lobby which was centrally pulling the political strings in a multitude of countries. Which image was correct? Was Nasser a third world liberation hero, struggling to liberate his people from the colonialist past or a expansionist reactionary nationalist who had crushed his progressive rivals? Moreover, the US strongly supported Israel but was deemed responsible for waging war in Vietnam. Added to all this was a growing sense of guilt over colonisation and the war in Algeria. There was a belief that even if some aspects of liberation movements were reactionary, they generally belonged to the movement of progressive anti-imperialism. L’Humanité selected the images which accorded with the PCF’s policy in supporting De Gaulle’s pro-Arab stance in 1967 and thereby attempted to connect Israelis with Nazis and with the war in Vietnam. The Six Day war whipped up all these conflicting images into an emotional whirlwind. Wartime anti-Nazism against contemporary anti-colonialism.

Sartre challenged the dejudaisation of the Israeli Jews and the separation from their Diaspora counterparts. The Six Day war deeply affected many assimilated Jews who had distanced themselves from Jewishness. The writer and filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann who strongly opposed the Algerian war commented: ‘without Israel I feel naked and vulnerable’.29

The Cubans referred to Israel as ‘the spearhead of Yankee imperialism’ and treated the Middle East crisis as merely another instance of American irresponsibility as in Vietnam and Latin America.30 While this impressed many, other French intellectuals in 1967 did not subscribe to the anti-colonialist narrative of the generation of Algeria. Sartre signed a manifesto with other French intellectuals which was published in Le Monde on 1 June 1967. This clearly opposed the view that Israel was the aggressor and an agent of US imperialism. It disputed the view that Arab nationalists were also socialists and solely wanted peace. It pointed out that Israel was the only state whose right to exist had been put in question. In response to this initiative, Sartre’s books were subsequently censured in some Arab states. Frantz Fanon’s widow asked the publisher, Maspero, to withdraw Sartre’s introduction to The Wretched of the Earth. Yet even L’Humanité condemned the Algerian Minister of Justice when he argued before a symposium of Arab jurists that ‘Israel must be liquidated as a nation’.31

The situation was even more complex for Jewish Marxists who opposed Zionism. In London, the historian, Isaac Deutscher, a Polish ilui (a child prodigy learned in Jewish religious texts) from Chrzanόw chided Sartre for effectively allowing his judgement to be clouded by ‘emotions and memories, however deep or haunting. We should not allow even invocations of Auschwitz to blackmail us into supporting the wrong cause’. Deutscher whose family had perished in the Holocaust was dismissive of ‘the confusion on the Left’. He was particularly disparaging about Jews on the Labour Left in Great Britain. ‘Scratch a Jewish left-winger and you find only a Zionist’. In an interview32, given just a few weeks after the Six Day war, he argued that Israel had played up fears of another final solution in the run-up to the war and believed that the Arabs in reality were actually incapable of any victory on the battlefield because of their military weakness. He was particularly scathing of ‘the frenzy of belligerence, arrogance and fanaticism’ in the aftermath of victory. He decried the scenes of joyous rabbis celebrating the taking the western Wall in Jerusalem. For him, it conjured up the imagery of a past life which he had left far behind. He felt ‘the ghosts of Talmudic obscurantism’ tapping him on the shoulder. There was therefore a clear difference between the Jewish Marxist historian Deutscher and the non-Jewish existentialist philosopher Sartre in the manner in which they interpreted the events of June 1967 in terms of the recent traumatic past – a past which had impinged on both their lives.

Deutscher’s analysis hinged on the belief that the US had changed from an anti-colonialist power during the rise of Israel in 1948 and during the Suez campaign in 1956 – and its subsequent desire to penetrate Africa and Asia. Deutscher offered the examples of the overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana, the mass killing of Indonesian Communists and others – real and imaginary – as indications of US determination not to permit the vacuum, created by the withdrawal of the old imperial powers from their colonies, to be filled by the Soviet Union. Israel had become merely a tool in the cold war between the superpowers and this had inculcated reactionary trends in Israel and exacerbated the Arab-Jewish conflict. Israelis had become ‘protégés of neo-colonialism’. Moshe Dayan – to whom he attributed Israel’s victory – was simply ‘a kind of Marshal Ky’ (of South Vietnam) of the Middle East.

Like India and China, Israel, he believed, had passed through its revolutionary phase towards ‘exclusiveness, national egoism and racism’ and now appeared as the Prussia of the Middle East.

Yet Deutscher tempered such commentary with criticism of the Arab states and he berated them for their ‘verbal excesses’ and refusal to recognise Israel. He believed that Arab workers should have appealed over the heads of the government leaders to Israeli workers and kibbutzniks. He argued for a different Israel and not for its abolition. Indeed he had once commented in 1954 that if he had urged European Jews to go to Palestine in the inter-war years, then ‘I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers’.33 Moreover there was neither comment about the existence of a Palestinian people nor the rise of the PLO.

Like Deutscher, the Belgian Marxist, Marcel Liebman reacted strongly to the Six Day war. During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, an elder brother had been deported to Auschwitz and never returned. He was hidden in Catholic institutions for the duration of the war. His experience led him to embracing Judaism with fervour and a desire to become a rabbi. This proved to be a temporary phase. He ditched this and instead embraced Marxism, joining the Parti Socialiste Belge. Although his parents were sympathetic to the Zionist experiment in Palestine, he became a strong opponent of Zionism during the Algerian struggle and feared that Israeli action would fortify the radical forces in the Arab world. He hoped in vain for a declaration of support for the FLN from Algerian Jewry.34 Yet as Albert Memmi in explained his The Colonizer and the Colonized, the situation was complicated.
Their (the Jews of north Africa) constant and very justifiable ambition is to escape from their colonised condition, an additional burden in an already oppressive status. To that end, they endeavour to resemble the coloniser in the frank hope that he may cease to consider them different from him. Hence their efforts to forget the past, to change collective habits and their enthusiastic adoption of western language, culture and customs.35
Memmi, a Tunisian Jew, wrote that the Jews of north Africa – and especially in Algeria - lived in ‘painful and constant ambiguity’. The Jews of Algeria feared both the French colons and the Arab nationalists – and this placed the communal view in abeyance. Between 1950 and 1970, 220,000 Jews migrated to France from North Africa. This reality disappointed Liebman in Brussels.

Liebman’s core belief was that Jews should not separate themselves. Israel’s victory during the Six Day war thus renewed his view that the Jews of Israel should renounce Zionism and integrate into the Arab Middle East. He therefore opposed ‘the Jewish character of the Jewish state’. He spoke of ‘a ghetto-nation which regards itself as ethnically, socially and politically different’ which was ‘an alien element in the region’. 36He believed that the identification of Diaspora Jews with Israel would justify the classical assertion of double loyalty by anti-Semites. If the Jews of Israel would only de-Zionise and stretch out their hand to their Arab brothers, they would be heartily welcomed into the Middle East.

Liebman was an early exponent of Palestinian nationalism on the European Left and the absolutist interpretation of the right of return. He defended the PLO’s advocacy of ‘a democratic and secular Palestine’ to replace the state of Israel. He believed that the PLO should cultivate the Jews of Israel and bring them around to their way of thinking and supported ‘the superiority of the Palestinian solution over the Zionist one’. Israel, he argued, would find their support in ‘circles possessed of enormous financial resources’ which was influential in the western media. The Palestinians, by contrast, would find their support among left wing youth for a progressive bi-national Palestine.
In this connection, it is essential to stress that all the Palestinian organisations have turned their backs on that earlier nihilism which, basing itself on a single consideration, the unjust origin of Israel, formerly refused to contemplate the possibility of co-existing with the Jews, now settled in Israel. Today, these organisations openly acknowledge that the positions they formerly defended and the language they used were symptoms of their political immaturity. Now they call upon the Jews of Israel to agree to co-operate in building a new state in which they would not have to suffer any discrimination but in which also they would enjoy no privileges.37
This advocacy of a one state solution was in contrast to the outlook of one of the leaders of the Israeli Communist party, Moshe Sneh. He made a distinction between anti-imperialism and pan-Arabism – and pointed out that Arab proclamations of equality with other groups, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, were not always realised. His colleague, Shmuel Mikunis was scathing about the apparent Arab blueprint to end Israel’s existence, suggesting that the old cry of the European fascists, ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’, had been updated to one of ‘Judeo-Colonialism’.
We have been repeatedly told not to pay heed to the threats against Israel. It was explained to us, over and over again, that these were mere words, which would disappear ‘with time’...we had been preached at to be lenient with the Arab anti-imperialists, at least, notwithstanding their warmongering because they were not only progressive but also on friendly terms with the Soviet Union...And even more: because of – what is called ‘the general interests of peace and socialism’.38
Liebman was accused of utopianism and wishful thinking. Unlike his close friend and colleague, the Marxist academic, Ralph Miliband, he regarded Arab nationalist regimes as progressive. He attacked suggestions that the PLO really wanted an Arab Palestine and that Arafat’s pitch to the New Left in Europe was little more than a public relations exercise.


There was a remarkable exchange of letters between Miliband and Liebman during the period of the Six Day War in June 1967. They were good friends, came from similar Polish Jewish families and examined contemporary events from a Marxist perspective. Yet while they agreed on most issues, there were profound differences on the question of Israel, especially on the eve of the war. Miliband who rarely touched on the Middle East conflict argued for Israel’s right to exist whereas Liebman espoused Arab nationalism with a passion. The correspondence was both civilised and acrimonious.

Miliband differed profoundly with Liebman on the part of the European Left’s willingness to accept ‘the rhetoric of Arab socialism’ emanating from Cairo. Nasser’s regime was, he pointed out, ‘a semi-military, bureaucratic dictatorship’ and the independent Egyptian Left had been brutally suppressed by it – ‘often with the help of former Gestapo officials’.39

Miliband argued that the European Left should be more discerning. While it should undoubtedly support Nasser’s moves against imperialism and colonialism, some of his undertakings against Israel left much to be desired. Liebman in turn argued that while Israel did not prevent the economic and socialist development of the Arab world, it did in essence fetter it and inhibit it. Miliband did not agree:
The sad thing is that this sterling Left is incapable of distinguishing anything from anything, and reacts with a truly Pavlovian predictability to the slogans used to make it drool on cue. I repeat, someone would have to demonstrate very clearly to me just how Israel is a break on the Arab socialist revolution, or rather hinders it, in order to justify the avowed intention of Nasser etc to put an end to the state itself. I don’t believe that there is any way to demonstrate this.40

Miliband accused Arab regimes of utilising nationalist feeling towards Israel not as a means of moving towards socialism, but for deflecting attention away from other issues. ‘If Israel did not exist, they would have to invent it’ he wrote. Israel was the only country where a certain degree of freedom of expression existed in the Middle East – there was not one, but two Communist parties. While some Israelis protest against discrimination against Arabs, how many Arab protests, he asked, have there been against persecution of Jews in the Arab world?

It is no duty of socialists to support pseudo-socialist revolutions unconditionally; they should do it in a nuanced way. But the rottenness of official Marxism in our time makes this kind of attitude impossible, even leaving aside the role of state interests.41

Liebman replied that Israel was an American pawn – and Miliband, to some extent, agreed. It therefore followed that Israel would therefore do everything in its power to prevent revolution in the Middle East. Liebman contended that Israel’s view stemmed from innate reactionary attitudes and allegiance to the US. Israel helped imperialism whenever the opportunity arose.

Miliband responded by pointing to Liebman’s inclination ‘to neglect anything that might extenuate Israel’s faults and crimes or even explain them’.
Once the state of Israel was established, over the Arab world’s opposition, the idea that they shouldn’t have gone looking for alliances etc is rather abstract. It is in fact Israel’s great historic misfortune, which may yet cost it its existence, that no alliances were available to it outside the imperialist camp. Even then, they should have looked for another way out. But we are dealing with people who aren’t socialists, or not the right kind.42

Miliband saw the fundamental issue on the eve of the Six Day war as one of life and death for Israel. Socialists, he argued, should not support the elimination of the state and all its citizens. Liebman, to some extent, concurred and pointed out that Arab socialists had ended up by challenging the very existence of Israel. He believed that this was because the state of Israel was not simply viewed as a foreign implant on Arab soil, but it constituted ‘the very symbol of their humiliation and furthermore an auxiliary of imperialism and therefore a danger’.

Yet Liebman queried the Arabs’ claim that the state of Israel must be destroyed. He asked what was actually meant by this and argued that they had a responsibility to clarify such commentary.
Do they mean physical destruction; does ‘state’ here mean ‘nation’?

Do they mean destroying the Israeli political entity as it exists today and replacing it with a different set-up: for example, transforming it into a federative component of a Middle Eastern federation, in which the Israeli nation would take part?

Do they mean creating a Palestinian state in which Jews would be nothing more than citizens with individual rights, without national representation? (But in that case there would be two million Jews and one million Arabs in this state, after the necessary and legitimate return of the refugees.)

Do they mean creating a Palestinian state from which the Jews would be expelled?43

Liebman was certainly more emotional in his approach and his correspondence was peppered with assaults on local Jews and Israelis per se. Miliband was also not spared this. He accused Miliband of reacting ‘as a European and a Jew rather than as a socialist’.

Both Miliband and Liebman understood the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Yet Liebman pointed out that the Arab experience in World War II was not the Jewish one. The Arabs, therefore, had ‘the right to give a low priority to this (Auschwitz) factor which is so foreign to their own direct or indirect experience’.

Liebman railed against support on the European Left by figures such as Sartre.

(Why) does the fate of the Jews weigh so on Europeans’ consciences, didn’t they take on the task of succouring and hosting the survivors themselves? Did all those Jewish survivors want to go to Palestine, by the way? No matter – to Palestine they went.44

Many Europeans, Liebman argued, believed that Israel was a European beachhead and a bastion of civilisation surrounded by a sterile landscape and a dark continent.’ Miliband was much more sanguine about the Jewish presence in Palestine.

What right do the Jews have to be in Palestine?...Their right stems from the fact that the world is what it is, from Hitler’s persecutions etc etc. All this doesn’t amount to an answer. But the fact is there.45

Miliband went further. The old ideas about Zionism were now out of date with the establishment of the state of Israel – ‘this makes what the great thinkers of the Comintern said of little relevance’.


Within a few weeks of the and of the war, a few prominent Jews such as Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits46 and the academic, Max Beloff,47 argued that the conquered territories should be given up. Most Diaspora Jewish organisations preferred to take their cue from the approach of the Israeli government. This was certainly unacceptable to many young Jews as well as to the Jewish intelligentsia. Such events and the student revolt in France initiated a Jewish New Left whose agenda was to democratise local Jewish communities, revitalise Zionism and recognise the emerging Palestinian nationalist movement as a partner for peace based on partition of the land. The ‘Critical Zionists’ of Holland and their journal Kova Tembel, the British Israel-Palestine Socialist Action Group, the German Borochovbund, and the pan-European Comité Israël-Palestine were indicative of the new thinking. Many became involved in Jewish student politics and injected a new radicalism such that they found themselves in a majority at the World Union of Jewish Students’ conference in Arad, Israel in July 1970. Their resolution stated:
Zionism is the national and, also by virtual of its territorialist aspect, the social liberation and emancipation movement of the Jewish people; it is to be realized in Israel. This goal can only be realized if the national rights of the Palestinian Arabs are considered so that they may be recognized to be a consequence of Zionist ideology.48

A few months later a seminar was organised by the Comité Israël-Palestine at Choisy-le-Roi, near Paris which attracted such diverse bodies as the Young Liberals (UK), Theorie und Praxis (Austria), Siah (Israel), Matzpen (Israel) and the Organisation des Jeunes Juifs Révolutionnaires (France). This meeting brought together representatives of the Fourth International with members of the World Union of Jewish Students.49 The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine sent observers. There was a broad criticism of Fatah with its belief that the Jews were solely defined by religion and its advocacy of a democratic secular state. The resolutions condemned the Israel government’s refusal to recognise the existence of a Palestinian people and called upon all Palestinian organisations ‘to recognise the right of the Israeli nation to self-determination’.

Sartre subsequently supported this initiative. He commented that he rejected the idea of one side as good and the other as evil and argued that the task of intellectuals was to reproach such thinking.

This third way anticipated the emergence of peace camps in both Israel and Palestine. While there were severe disagreements between Zionists and anti-Zionists, for many young Jews, it was a unique occurrence in the politics of the Jewish Diaspora. It aligned many Jewish students with the embryonic Israeli peace camp and often earned them the opprobrium of their elders and opponents. It also issued into existence a group of people that had to struggle on two fronts – against the ultra-Zionism of the Israeli Right which propelled the settlement drive on the West Bank and against the anti-Zionism of some sections of the European New Left which wished to delegitimise and then erase a state with a Jewish majority in the Arab Middle East.

Such ideas began to influence social democratic parties in Europe particularly in the 1970s. The settlement drive on the West Bank and Gaza by the Israelis after 1968 was a reflection of the political immobility of the Labour Alignment which included both the dovish Mapam and the hawkish Rafi. It pitted liberals such as Abba Eban and Pinchas Sapir against military heroes of the Right such as Moshe Dayan. Golda Meir’s guiding belief was to hold this pantomime horse of ill-suited allies together – and in so doing, allowed the zealous advocates of colonising the newly conquered territories to squeeze into the political interstices and establish new settlements. The question of recognising the emerging existence of a Palestinian people was readily accepted by the younger generation of Labour activists and writers such as Amos Oz,50 but hotly resisted by the old guard. This was personified by the Prime Minister, Golda Meir who proclaimed that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people.51

1 Ibid. Edmunds p.61.

2 Daily Worker 31 July 1956.

3 John Callaghan, Socialism in Britain (Oxford 1990) pp.186-187.

4 R. Palme Dutt, World News 8 March 1958.

5 The New Reasoner no.1 July 1956.

6 The New Reasoner no.3 November 1956.

7 Universities and Left Review no. 5 Autumn 1958.

8 Ralph Miliband, ‘Thirty Years of Socialist Register’, Socialist Register 1994.

9 Ralph Miliband, ‘Socialism and the Myth of the Golden Past’, Socialist Register 1964.

10 Charles Taylor, Marxism and Socialist Humanism in Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left 30 Years On ed. Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group (London 1989) p.66.

11 Anouar Abdel-Malik, ‘Nasserism and Socialism’, Socialist Register 1964.

12 Socialist Worker 15 May 1969.

13 M. Ben Reuben, ‘Gagarin and the Jewish Problem’, A Socialist Review (London 1965) pp.249-253

14 Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust (Chapter 11)

15 Ben Cohen, ‘A Discourse of Delegitimisation: The British Left and the Jews’, Institute for Jewish Policy Research,

16 John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics (Oxford 1987) p.199.

17 Stuart Hall, The ‘First’ New Left in Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left 30 Years On ed. Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group (London 1989) p.32.

18 Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe (Oxford 2002) p.338.

19 Jonathan Judaken, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question: Anti-anti-Semitism and the Politics of the French Intellectual (Nebraska 2006) pp.187-188.

20 Jean-Paul Sartre, Hillel no.7 June 1949 in www.marxists.or p.41.g.reference/archive/sartre/1949/israel.htm

21 Jean-Paul Sartre, La Terre Retrouvée 49, no.4 November 1976 in Judaken p.184.

22 Edward Said, London Review of Books August 2000.

23 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London 1967) p.27.

24 David Caute, Fanon (London 1970) p.48.

25 Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (New York 1991) pp.537-541.

26 Corriere della Sera 14 June 1967.

27 New York Times 14, 15 June 1967.

28 Alice Cherki, Frantz Fanon: A Portrait (London 2006) p.187.

29 Le Monde 2 June 1967.

30 Agence France-Presse 30 May 1967.

31 Morgen Freiheit 11 August 1967.

32 New Left Review July-August 1967.

33 The Reporter April-May 1954.

34 Marcel Liebman, Born Jewish: A Childhood in Occupied Europe (London 2005) pp.169-170.

35 Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (London 2003) p.59.

36 Marcel Liebman, ‘Israel, Palestine and Zionism, Socialist Register 1970.

37 Ibid.

38 Shmuel Mikunis, ‘Against Arab Chauvinism’, in War and Peace: Articles Published by Morgen Freiheit (New York 1967) p.12.

39 Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman, The Israeli Dilemma: A Debate between Two Left Wing Jews ed. Gilbert Achcar (Monmouth 2006) p.16.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid. p.43.

43 Ibid. p.33.

44 Ibid. p.30.

45 Ibid. p.45.

46 Guardian 24 June 1967.

47 Jewish Chronicle 30 June 1967.

48 New Outlook September-October 1970.

49 Le Monde 25 March 1970.

50 Amos Oz, ‘Meaning of Homeland’, New Outlook December 1967.

51 Sunday Times 15 June 1969.

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