Joel Beinin, Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965 (California, 1990).

Given the present fragile possibility of resolving the interminable Arab-Israeli conflict, now is a good time to examine why those political forces that supported solutions based on respect for the national rights of both Palestinians and Israelis in 1947 failed. In Egypt and Israel, the principal protagonists in the conflict, Marxist forces accepted the principle of partitioning Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, as mandated by the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 1947. This was the position of various communist organizations and of Mapam, the United Workers’ Party of Israel, which then considered itself an active participant in the Moscow-led world revolutionary movement. Mapam leader Ya’akov Hazan once called the Soviet Union “the second homeland of the Jewish people.”

Such things are forgotten today. Joel Beinin’s book is a welcome reminder that these organizations once had significant influence and played far from marginal roles in their respective countries. Mapam won 19 of 120 seats in Israel’s 1949 elections and the Communist Party (Maki) won 4. In Egypt from 1950 to 1952, the various elements of the Communist movement were active in the struggle against British colonialism and made important gains in organizing the workers’ movement. Beinin notes that, in contrast to a widespread misconception, “there is little evidence that the Egyptian Communists suffered a dramatic loss of popularity because of [their] stand on Palestine.” Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers, who were preparing to overthrow the monarchy, accepted Communists in their ranks and maintained organizational contacts with them.

Nationalist discourse on the conflict was still far from hegemonic in Israel and the Arab world. Why then were the Marxists unable to make their two-state vision prevail? According to Beinin, “it was primarily the internal structure of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state it established on the one hand and the nationalist, anti-imperialist class alliance forged by Gamal Abdel Nasser on the other that marginalized Marxist politics and thus the Marxist approach to the Palestinian Arab-Israeli conflict.” He devotes a stimulating chapter to “The Political Economy of Hegemony,” noting that despite the predominance of the labor movement in the yishuv, the Jewish colony was completely dependent on British good will and Western capital during the 1920s and 1930s. This dependency increased following the establishment of the Israeli state: “Over 25 percent of the total receipts of the Israeli government came from abroad during 1949; in the 1950s, some 70 percent of Israel’s foreign trade was with the United States and Western Europe.” It was therefore “natural” that after a brief flirtation with the Soviet Union, Israel would return to the Western camp and its ideology would increasingly be reduced to rejection of the Other, i.e., the Arab and the Palestinian.

If in 1947 the Zionists were, by default, the only force capable of expelling Great Britain from Palestine, the Communist analysis that ignored all the contradictions in that movement only served to paralyze the Marxist organizations. Another factor that made truly internationalist politics difficult was the “settler-colonial component of the Zionist project.” The expulsion and expropriation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — in which Mapam officers and kibbutzim played an active role — created a kind of repressed “original sin” that complicated the problem of maintaining a positive approach to the Palestinian question. The paralysis of both the Israeli and the Arab Marxist left was also related to a theoretical failure that Beinin underscores and whose consequences can still be felt today in the Middle East and elsewhere: “Marxism had no theoretical category for a national or inter-communal struggle in which the leadership of both sides was not particularly anti-imperialist.”

The process of consolidation of nationalist hegemony in Egypt was quite different from the process in Israel. [1] When Nasser and his comrades came to power on July 23, 1952, they formed a new class alliance that significantly reduced the large landholding class propping up the monarchy. The old social order was destroyed and the working class, until then quite militant, was integrated through social reform, efficient repression and “the state’s…unwillingness to permit the labor movement to exercise even the limited civil autonomy it had enjoyed under the monarchy.” The Communist movement was thus deprived of its base of influence.

Despite these “objective” factors, the early 1950s seemed to present a “window of opportunity” for the Marxist left in both countries. They were defending the same positions, and Beinin correctly emphasizes that “the fates of the Egyptian and Israeli Marxists were to some degree interrelated and bound by the same historical forces.” In Egypt, the conflict with Israel was still a relatively secondary issue. Only in 1955 did it become a central element in Nasser’s ideology; indeed, he was secretly negotiating with the Zionist enemy as late as 1956. In Israel, the pro-partition left — heir to the once influential but now forgotten binationalist movement — still had weight. It is easy to say that such an internationalist and pro-peace policy was based on illusion; hindsight certainly makes plain the problems and contradictions it faced. But it would be simplistic to say that because history has taken a given course, that it was the only one possible.

Obviously we cannot recreate history. Beinin suggests in his conclusion that “it is very possible that a more determined rejection of the hegemonic political discourse by the Marxists in these two countries would have isolated the Marxists even more, further reduced their political influence, and led to even more repression against them.” Given the collapse of the Communist and Marxist movements in both Egypt and Israel in the mid-1960s, it is hard to see how their organizations could have been more isolated. But we might also turn the question around and broaden it to include the entire Arab Marxist left: Was it not its acceptance of the nationalist discourse that reduced it to an insignificant force? [2]

The 1950s were the years of a parallel and related marginalization of the Israeli and Egyptian Marxists. Each concession to nationalism on the one side provoked similar concessions on the other. The watershed year was clearly 1955, when any internationalist perspective became untenable. In that year Mapam reached the peak of its electoral strength, but when it agreed to join the government and approved the pathetic Suez adventure (it even proposed the annexation of Gaza and Sharm al-Sheikh), it hastened its integration into the “consensus,” thereby denying its own specificity and initiating its irreversible decline. The Egyptian Communists paid the price of their divisions and their failure to form a single organization by being swallowed up in a nationalism that left no room for any internationalist or class perspective. Nevertheless, the first contacts between Israeli and Egyptian pacifists were made during the same period, and a line of resistance to nationalist hegemony was maintained. From 1950 to 1952, the peace movement provided a framework for meetings between Yusuf Hilmi, a lawyer and member of the Nationalist Party and secretary-general of the Egyptian Partisans of Peace, and Aharon Cohen, the celebrated Arabist and member of Mapam. A conference of the peace movement was even scheduled to take place in Cairo in January 1952, but the Cairo fire and the declaration of martial law precluded the meeting. Thereafter, contact was maintained primarily through Henri Curiel, one of the Egyptian Communist leaders exiled in Paris, who strove against all odds to sustain a vision based on the common struggle of the peoples in the region and who constantly reiterated that the Egyptian Communists had powerful allies in Maki and the anti-Zionist left wing of Mapam.

In April 1955 the Bandung Conference provided the pretext for a new peace initiative. Its final declaration contained the following resolution offered by Nasser: “In view of the existing tension in the Middle East caused by the situation in Palestine and of the danger of that tension to world peace, the Asian-African Conference declared its support for the rights of the Arab people of Palestine and called for the implementation of the UN resolutions on Palestine and of the peaceful settlement of the Palestine question.” Nasser’s acceptance of the partition plan, and therefore of Israel’s right to exist, might have served as a basis for understanding; but the government of Israel as well as the Israeli left refused to even consider these concessions. Yusuf Hilmi, who had become a Communist in the meantime, attempted to revive the dynamic of peace in two letters dated November 10, 1955, one to Nasser and the other to the Israeli people, in which he recognized that the Arab states had unjustly attacked Israel in 1948 and supported Nasser’s initiative while criticizing him for not taking it further. But Mapam, including its left wing, rejected the idea of repatriation of the refugees, a return to the borders of 1947 and the creation of a Palestinian state, and Hilmi’s increasingly isolated initiatives were attacked by Egyptian Communists, some of whom now demanded the expulsion of women and Jews from Communist organizations.

The Marxists were ultimately disarmed by regional dynamics — the 1954 French-Israeli arms deal, the 1955 Czech-Egyptian arms deal, the 1956 Suez expedition and the new Soviet policy of support for “national bourgeoisies” following the Twentieth Party Congress. The Israeli Communist Party was able to resist marginalization for a time, but as it grew more dependent on its Arab constituency it tended to align itself with Arab nationalist positions. The Egyptian Communists’ continuing retreat culminated in the party dissolving itself after belatedly reuniting in 1965. But it had already capitulated in 1958 to the analysis that postponed the resolution of the conflict to “the final liquidation of imperialism in the Arab east,” and saw Israel not as the expression of the right of the Jews of Palestine to self-determination but simply as an imperialist base.

It is a cruel irony of history that the principles originally advocated by the Marxists should be given new life — albeit under different conditions less favorable to the peoples of the region — by the leadership produced by the national independence struggles, first Sadat in Egypt and now perhaps Hafiz al-Asad in Syria, and without the Marxists deriving any advantage from their foresight! Even the Palestine Liberation Organization has ended up openly advocating the partition of Palestine.

Beinin has written an extremely rich work that incorporates a detailed analysis of the evolution of Mapam as well as of Maki from its 1948 reunification to its 1965 split. Anyone interested in the region will find a wealth of original material in this book. It should be required reading for all those in the Middle East and the Arab world who consider themselves Marxists. It should stimulate a thorough reconsideration of the strategies that contributed to the rise of leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Asad, and lent them a socialist legitimacy that did much more than the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe to discredit the left in the region. The defeat of Saddam Hussein, often encouraged in his suicidal adventure by so-called progressive forces, again confirms the failure of nearly 40 years of nationalist hegemony. This account of the struggle of the Egyptian and Israeli Marxists during the 1950s provides excellent food for thought.

Translated from the French by Diane James.


[1] The simplistic parallel between Zionism and Arab nationalism obscures the unequal relations each had with the Western powers.
[2] See my study of one aspect of the problem of relations between Communists and nationalists in “The Free Officers and the Comrades: The Sudanese Communist Party and Nimeiri Face to Face, 1969-1971,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29 (1989).

How to cite this article:

Alain Gresh "Beinin, Was the Red Flag Flying There?," Middle East Report 176 (May/June 1992).

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