For years, economic analysts of all political persuasions have been commenting on the protracted economic crisis which began with the global recession of 1974-75 and continues to be the defining feature of world capitalism today. Most have restricted themselves to those manifestations of the crisis which have been particularly acute at various moments: the oil price shocks of the 1970s, Third World debt, African famine and the inability of the market to ensure adequate food supply, the US balance of payments deficit, and so forth. By contrast, Joyce Kolko’s Restructuring the World Economy (New York: Pantheon, 1988) links these and other issues in a comprehensive analysis of the crisis. The wide range of this bold book and Kolko’s courage in confronting issues which are matters of life and death for millions of people should embarrass those narrow-minded technicians inhabiting most university economics departments who are more concerned with building mathematical models than social realities.

After an introductory global economic history of the 1970s and 1980s, Kolko shapes the rest of the book around the basic concepts of capital, the state and labor. Kolko simply and elegantly reminds us of the fundamental features of the economic system we live under: 1) capitalists invest only to seek profits; 2) though individual governments may pursue a wide range of economic policies reflecting the balance of internal forces in a country and differing perceptions of profitability, states as structures are subordinate to the requirements of accumulation and expanded reproduction of capital even as they play increasingly important roles in these processes; 3) the contradiction between labor and capital is a systemic, unresolvable feature of capitalism. Kolko employs these analytical concepts to explain and connect aspects of the crisis — food, debt, trade, etc. — which are most commonly treated as disparate phenomena. Kolko’s holistic approach demonstrates anew why Marxist political economy remains the most powerful analytical framework for understanding capitalism.

 

The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has stimulated a new level of concern and desire to take political action among many Westerners. The first step in effective political action is often re-education. When this magazine was founded in 1971, there was a serious shortage of good reading material on the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is no longer true, and the problem is how to make judicious choices when designing reading lists for classes or community, church and political study groups.

Two recently published general histories of the conflict aim to fill the needs of beginning students: Michael J. Cohen’s The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) and Charles D. Smith’s Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988). Both are short and comprehensive, designed to reach a wide audience. But each has shortcomings which should be recognized.

Cohen treats the conflict from its origins in the late 19th century until the establishment of the state of Israel. He attempts to answer four basic questions. How and why did the British government lead both the Arabs and the Jews to believe that Palestine was promised to them in World War I? What was the status of these promises? What were the contradictions that led to the failure of the British mandatory regime in Palestine? Why did Britain surrender the mandate, and why did the Arabs and the Jews fight the 1948-49 war?

Cohen’s focus on diplomatic history is both his strength and his weakness. His “realism” avoids moralizing and argues, for example, that British promises to both Arabs and Jews were made for raisons d'état rather than moral imperatives. But he does not draw the obvious conclusion — that such commitments have neither legal nor moral validity. Nor does he address the right of the British (other than that of conquest) to make such commitments in the first place. This is symptomatic of the conservative assumptions which too often guide the writing of diplomatic history. The international state system is a “fact.” State actions are by definition legitimate. Those who resist duly constituted states but fail (the Palestinians) are delegitimized; states and those who become states themselves after successfully opposing established states (the Zionists) are validated.

Cohen has little interest in the social and cultural history of the conflict. His account of the origins of Arab nationalism ignores much recent scholarship and betrays a dismissive attitude. Arab nationalism appears to be little more than the product of the dynastic ambitions of the Hashemites, and no real basis for Palestinian opposition to the Zionist project becomes apparent. Cohen does not explain why the Zionists succeeded despite their minority status in Palestine and why the Palestinians and the Arab states failed to prevent this.

Unlike Cohen’s book, Smith’s longer, more comprehensive narrative does not have a clear organizing principle. Smith does, though, admirably and succinctly summarize a prodigious quantity of recent scholarship, much of which undermines commonly held assumptions about the history and nature of the conflict. He usually gives adequate space to Palestinian perceptions and motivations; by doing so he portrays the Palestinians as full actors in the conflict, a status currently denied to them by both the Israeli and US governments. The weakest part of Smith’s book is the inadequate explanation of American policy in the conflict after 1967. The development of the PLO’s political thinking in the 1970s and 1980s also needs a clearer account.

What links both Cohen and Smith despite their divergent analytical approaches is their use of the rhetorical device of “objectivity” to justify their work. Yet, it would be easy to show how Cohen’s book is rooted in the historical, cultural and political assumptions of Zionism, while many partisans of Israel will see Smith’s book as “pro-Arab.” Cohen and Smith have unfortunately embraced the notion that truth is the mathematical sum of “the facts.” Adopting Anglo-American positivism allows Cohen to reinforce the Zionist movement’s identity with the values and orientation of the West. Smith’s lack of self-awareness about his own discursive framework (or reluctance to articulate it) reflects a larger problem that we as Americans have in interpreting statements made from cultural positions other than our own.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Editor’s Bookshelf (November/December 1988)," Middle East Report 155 (November/December 1988).
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