The late 1970s saw the demise of the organized left as a viable political force in Arab society. Egypt’s socialists were confined to intellectual circles gathered around al-Ahali newspaper and the Tagammu‘ party. The two largest and most vigorous Arab communist parties, in Iraq and Sudan, had been crushed forcefully by militarist regimes. The Syrian communists — once a substantial force — were wedded in a deadly embrace to the Baath Party. The Lebanese left, intellectually the most diverse, was dissipated in the civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion. The Israeli Communist Party, paradoxically the party with the largest proportional Arab electoral base, lingered on only to be consumed by its own rigidity in the face of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Elsewhere in the Arab world there is newly unified Yemen, where the Yemeni Socialist Party, once the ruling party of the former People’s Democratic Republic, has adopted a thoroughly free-market approach in the economic sphere, and a secular social democratic political philosophy.

Among the Palestinians there is still a substantial radical movement engaged in an ongoing popular rebellion, and with a social base which it can claim represents something more than Rodinson’s 5 percent. But even here fatigue seems to have set in. The one great achievement of the Arab left in the civil society arena — the emergence of a popular secular culture — is now challenged by self-appointed legions of divine guidance.

A spirit of renewal is also to be found here. In the winter of 1991, the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP) announced a break with its Leninist past and relaunched itself as a new “democratic and popular party” under the name Palestinian People’s Party (PPP). A few months earlier, the Abed Rabbo faction of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine announced its intention to become a pluralistic, democratic and leftist party. Its third party conference adopted a program that allows for factions to coexist within the party, subject to majority restrictions. [1]

The People’s Party and the Democratic Front have reconstructed themselves in reaction to both the momentous developments in the former Soviet bloc and the intifada. Yet the program of the PPP, published in October 1991, is significant more for its omissions than its affirmations. [2] In common with many reformed socialist parties in the last few years, it recognizes what it is against rather than what it seeks. The new party is neither communist nor Leninist. It is hardly even socialist. In its political preamble it defines itself as a movement struggling for independence, democracy, progress, social justice and a socialism “congruent with the specificities of the Palestinian realities” — a formulation which has been bitterly attacked in the past in its Nasserist and Baathist versions as a position fraught with “bourgeois nationalism.”

Organizationally the PPP disavows democratic centralism and seeks participatory, “mass-based” mechanisms for decision making. The Democratic Front sees the Leninist version of democratic centralism (in the Palestinian and Arab context) as an elitist and authoritarian model that has blocked the growth of democratic practices within the socialist movement. [3] Its critique of the PCP’s organizational elitism further notes the particularly parasitic growth of bureaucratic cadres in the Palestinian movement whereby office work and “revolutionary specialization” led to abuse of position in the absence of democratic control from below. [4]

This criticism of party apparatchiks and their mode of operation was rooted, in the analysis of the DFLP revisionists, in what is termed “class barricadism” (takhanduq tabaqi) — an ideological residue of the Bolshevik legacy that subsumed the interests of society in general within those of an abstract proletariat. [5] This vision did not take into account the particular composition of Palestinian society and its dispersed character. Nor did it serve the interests of the working class itself, which was anchored in both the peasantry and the refugee population. Most damaging was an inability to develop creative strategies of mass mobilization and of reaching wider sectors of the public (professionals, merchants, housewives) who did not have sufficiently proletarian credentials.

Both the PPP and the DFLP self-criticisms seem to lead in the same direction: toward pluralism, tolerance of minority opposition within agreed boundaries, and propagation of their political perspective through mass-based organizations. [6] But here lies the main challenge to the left’s vision of a new democracy. There is a lack of clarity — perhaps an intentional ambiguity — as to whether these mass organizations are legal “fronts” for clandestine party operations (in which key positions are closely controlled) or whether they are what they claim to be: parallel organizations in which the party seeks influence but not control.

Nevertheless, these ideological and organizational developments constitute a significant break with the past. They come in the context of a rich history. These two reconstituted parties have struggled politically and conceptually with narrow nationalism and class reductionism, competing with the popular (and often demagogic) claims of Nasserist and Baathist pan-Arabism.

The Islamist Challenge

The prevailing tendency in the reformed Palestinian left is an eclectic glasnost toward all former taboos: social democracy, liberalism, Trotskyism and religion. A main attribute of the People’s Party is “openness to religion and to religious membership.” On the face of it this seems to abandon the secular tradition which has marked both Palestinian nationalism and socialism since the 1930s. The PPP’s reluctant reconciliation with religion echoes earlier attempts by Egyptian Nasserists and Marxists who sought the roots of Arab socialism in the teachings of Abu Dhar al-Ghafari and the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad. Michel Aflaq carried this furthest by emphasizing the Islamic cultural foundation of modern Arab socialism. Today the victory of the Islamist forces in Iran and the ascendancy of fundamentalism in Palestinian refugee camps before and during the intifada have compelled the secular forces to reconsider their ideological premises in a number of issues affecting their image in the “street.”

The Palestinian Islamist movement, on the offensive, has introduced a rhetoric into the mass movement which previously had been confined to religious study circles. A decisive battle was fought over women’s behavior and dress code, first in Gaza and then in the West Bank. On this crucial issue the left, and nationalists in general, retreated. By mid-1990, when secular forces finally confronted the increasing abuse of individual women who refused to wear the veil, the battle had been lost in Gaza. [7] Nevertheless, a lesson seems to have been learned, and authoritarian behavior was checked and sometimes reversed in the more secularized regions of the West Bank. In other spheres of daily life, though, advances were being eroded, as marked by a significant drop in the age of married women, incessant attacks on coeducation and calls for gender segregation, and the rise of “moral teachings” in the press and the mass media.

Behind this visible retreat of the left (Arab as well as Palestinian) is a venerable tradition of divorcing the political from the cultural and social spheres in the agendas of socialist parties. For a long time, for example, the three main Palestinian socialist tendencies refused to challenge the personal status code (which does not allow civil marriage), fearing this would alienate the religious street. At the same time, the most extreme nationalist and militarist rhetoric was tolerated and even encouraged because of its presumed appeal to mass sentiments.

The social context of this myopia should be sought in two particular features of Palestinian society: the absence of cosmopolitan urban centers, and the decline in number and weight of the urban middle classes (caused by war and migration). The prevalence of a small-town, rural culture today provides fertile ground for the ascendancy of social and religious conservatism. This should be compared with similar trends in Lebanon and Algeria, where substantial rural-urban migration has weakened the urbane secular milieux of Beirut, Tripoli, Algiers and Oran. The significant defection of Palestinian professionals to the Gulf states, and later to Jordan and America, depleted local political culture of a versatile, liberal and pluralistic component which could have stood up to the small-town ideology. The result is a paralyzing fear of “antagonizing the mass sentiment” that prevents Palestinian (and Arab) socialists from tackling sensitive cultural issues.

Class Politics, National Politics

Since its inception in the 1920s, Palestinian socialism has been preoccupied with combining working-class politics and nationalism. The former theme became problematic when the Palestinian people were dispersed following the 1948 war, and the remnants of the PCP were subsumed into the Jewish-Arab Israeli Communist Party, Rakah. Palestinian nationalism became intertwined with anti-Zionism and subsequently the search for a territorial solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Class and nationalism had to be substantially redefined with the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. While the Palestinian left stressed their Arab nationalist links in the 1950s and 1960s, and indeed many of its cadres joined the Nasserist Arab National Movement and the Baath — the same left (including the communists) made an about-face in the 1970s and began to consolidate itself into a “separatist” Palestinian movement whose main task was building the embryonic national institutional networks under Israeli rule. Of the three main formations that identified themselves as socialist (we will exclude Israeli communists in this analysis), the Popular Front maintained the most nationalist and pan-Arabist perspective, even to the point of neglecting trade union politics throughout the crucial years of the 1970s. It was also the party that led the split after the PLO adopted its transitional program (implying acceptance of a two-state solution) at the 1974 meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). The PCP and the Democratic Front vied for hegemony over working-class politics, almost to the point of making a fetish of their proletarian ideology. Both parties maintained long-standing contacts with the Israeli left and played a decisive role in the adoption of the two-state program at the nineteenth conference of the PNC in Algiers in 1988.

One of the earliest debates which divided the Palestinian left on their strategy toward Israeli colonial rule was their interpretation of changes in Palestinian society, particularly those resulting from its subordination to the Israeli economy. At the center of this controversy was the fate of hundreds of thousands of laborers who commuted daily to work in Israeli industries and construction. By the end of the first decade of Israeli rule, those amounted to more than 40 percent of the aggregate labor force in the West Bank and Gaza. The Communists argued that because these workers are recruited from the ranks of the peasantry and refugee camp dwellers, they tend to be “socially marginal,” with a potentially weak class consciousness. [8] The entry of those workers into the work force, while enlarging the absolute and relative size of the working class, was likely to weaken the traditional urban-based labor movement by bringing “undisciplined” elements to its ranks. [9]

The Workers’ Unity Bloc (representing the Democratic Front) put forth an opposite line of analysis: Peasant-workers were the most oppressed section of the Palestinian working class, subject to low wages and ethnic discrimination at the work site. They were also strategically located in crucial areas in Israeli construction, industries and services. Bringing these workers into the trade union movement should therefore be a prime task of the Palestinian left, not only because they constituted a new (and essential) sector of the working class, but because they offered a critical weapon in the hand of the Palestinian national movement: At a decisive moment they could paralyze the Israeli economy. [10]

Underlying this debate were divergent concepts about the degree and consequences of Palestinian integration into the Israel economy. In reality, though, this was less a discourse about proletarian dialectics than about tactical expediency. During the first decade of Israeli rule the Communists had controlled the trade union movement. Their base was in the craft industries, small workshops and professional institutions of the Palestinian urban centers. The Democratic Front, a relative newcomer, sought to establish a foothold in those sections of the working class that were unorganized and outside the influence of the PCP. The ideological debate, to a large extent about turf, nevertheless had real and substantive consequences. It eventually introduced new blood into the trade union movement, which invigorated and diversified the political agenda of the left. By and large, however, Palestinian workers employed in Israel remained unorganized, partly because of the workers’ fragmentation and dispersal but also because of Israeli repression of labor organizing in general. Ultimately this dispute among Palestinian Marxists was superseded in the 1980s by the conflict between nationalist-affiliated unions — i.e., Fatah — and leftist tendencies opposed to “class collaboration with the Palestinian bourgeoisie.” [11]

From Frontist Politics to Civil Intrusions

Perhaps the most creative achievement of the Palestinian left was the forging of democratic and relatively autonomous movements in which large sectors of youth and women became involved during the intifada. The creation of these mass movements (mu’assasat jamahiriyya) was rooted much more in the tradition of popular front politics than in an attempt to forge alternatives to Leninist democratic centralism.

In the early 1980s, the main challenge to the left was Fatah’s control of “steadfastness funds.” These infusions of cash from the PLO outside aimed at consolidating a pattern of economic growth whose main beneficiaries were middle-class Palestinian professionals and entrepreneurs. Politically, these funds generated nepotistic patronage politics. Dispensing favors in the form of positions, grants and investments suited the style and structure of Fatah, the largest and ideologically most centrist party. In many ways, Fatah’s approach was congruent with the pragmatic, conservative shopkeeper outlook of the urban Palestinian masses — what became known as dukkan (“shop”) politics.

One of the first arenas to feel the impact of the Fatah challenge was the trade union movement — the citadel of leftist control. Fatah succeeded in breaking the monopoly of the PCP and the DFLP on the workers’ movement in Nablus, and then in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, by sponsoring labor unions along craft, trade and sectoral lines. By the mid-1980s, Fatah-supported associations in the labor movement claimed a majority membership in all organized labor groups, and in 1992 their affiliated units constitute about 70 percent of the membership in the executive of the Palestinian Federation of Trade Unions. Although the left claimed that many of those syndicates were “cardboard” organizations, and that they deserted class politics in favor of behind-the-scenes deals with management, it was forced to engage in similar patronage-based politics to maintain its quantitative weight in the labor movement.

The loss of its monopoly over the workers’ movement forced the Palestinian left to seek an alternative popular base in the voluntary civic associations, which in the mid-1980s came to be known as mass organizations. Frontist politics were already familiar terrain for the left working under clandestine conditions (both under Israeli rule and in the Arab countries with large refugee communities). The style and rhetoric of these movements were established in the student movement, and later in the 1970s in the movements for voluntary work, in which thousands of students were mobilized to help farmers left shorthanded by the migration of rural workers into Israel. The Popular Front, the Democratic Front and the Communists were all active in these work camps, but the Communists were the most successful in turning it into an established movement with a coherent “revive the land” ideology. This movement, with its echoes of nineteenth-century Russian Narodnism, was short-lived, however, since the economic assumption behind it was unrealistic. Farmers could not depend on a highly idealistic urban intelligentsia to replace their lost hands, and the supply of student labor was transitory by its very nature. The “voluntary movement” eventually became compulsory when three Palestinian universities institutionalized it as part of their community work program, and it soon became an item of drudgery in student life.

These early experimental attempts at mass organization found their historical moment with the outbreak of the intifada. Within weeks after refugee camp residents initiated the momentous demonstrations of December 1987, the left put its full weight behind the uprising by organizing neighborhood committees to sustain the momentum of confrontation with the Israeli armed forces. These were the precursors of the popular committees (banned by then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in March 1988). From those popular committees evolved the mass organizations of today.

Four mass organizations — health, agriculture, women’s political associations and voluntary work groups — became the backbone of the intifada. They provided it with an organizational framework and, more significantly, gave it a program and direction. This was particularly evident in the economic strategies of the United Leadership (commercial strikes, boycott of Israeli products, the creation of “alternative production units”), and in the vocabulary of the intifada. [12]

Loss of a Left Consensus

The left’s ability to formulate a consensus on the objectives of the intifada and to invest the uprising with a qualitative depth through the popular committees was cut short by divergent attitudes towards the PLO’s peace initiative of November 1988 and the Madrid negotiations with Israel in October 1991. The Communists and the Democratic Front (Abed Rabbo) joined Fatah in approving the peace initiative and supporting Palestinian participation in the Madrid and Washington talks. The PLO leadership appointed Gaza’s grand old man of the Palestinian left, Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, as the head of the delegation. The PFLP, after some hesitation, led the opposition forces, and later joined the Muslim Brothers and the Islamic Jihad in a “tactical” alliance to disrupt the negotiations. The Hawatmeh faction of the DFLP, like the PFLP, voted for the peace program, but later adopted an agnostic position. In principle it supported negotiations and a two-state solution, but saw the conditions surrounding the attendance of the Madrid conference as unfavorable. [13] This stand was dictated as much by internal rivalry with the Abed Rabbo faction (the DFLP had formally split in 1991) as by issues of principle.

A split also occurred among the Communists, with the Democratic Coalition announcing its formation in January 1992. Composed of trade union groups in Bethlehem and party branches in Gaza and the central regions disgruntled by the formation of the PPP , the Coalition was burdened from its inception with two conflicting tendencies: one, centered around the trade union group, opposed the PPP for abandoning socialism and Leninism; the other, an intellectual group based in the cultural monthly al-Katib, faulted the new party for not going far enough in its reforms. [14] The current impasse of the Palestinian left is clearly political, not ideological.

A leading PPP intellectual candidly pointed out recently that “an alternative socialism for the Palestinian left must be forged in a prolonged process of self-criticism, but also in rooting our new program to the conditions and needs of the post-Gulf war realities.” It would be foolish, he added, “to jump into a new political perspective without examining its efficacy and suitability for the Palestinian conditions.” [15]

The new pragmatism is also at the heart of the current crisis. What united the radical forces with the national movement during the first two years of the intifada was a common perception of the objectives of the uprising: the struggle for independence through mass mobilization based on a minimal program of delinking from Israel and a transition to sovereignty. Once this minimal program was incorporated into the agenda of the peace negotiations it became clear that the People’s Party and the Democratic Front have more in common with Fatah and the centrists than with their ideological counterparts in the PFLP and the Hawatmeh tendency.

Social Freedoms

It is sobering that while the Palestinian left has broken with the legacy of decades of fierce nationalist ideology to adopt a path-breaking position on the national question (the peace program and the two-state solution), it remains unable to challenge reactionary forces on social freedoms (including the status of women) and individual liberties. This is an irony of fate few could have foreseen a decade earlier.

Perhaps the left will be pushed to tackle these social issues seriously by its electoral defeats in 1991 and 1992 at the hands of fundamentalist forces. (The left lost in several municipal and chamber of commerce elections, including the February 1992 poll in Ramallah, a bastion of left secularism, and the fundamentalists gained ground in the physicians’ and engineers’ syndicates.) The control of crucial arenas in civil society is steadily being penetrated by actors who are bent on reproducing society in the image of a bygone purity. These political losses of the left and secular nationalists cannot, as in the past, be isolated from the social and cultural spheres. A new strategy for appealing to the secular instincts of the masses is necessary. To win this arduous battle, the left must first question its’ own shattered heritage, including its misconceived, reified notion of the “masses” as a homogeneous force, inherently religious and conservative, or inherently revolutionary.

Recent strategies adopted by the left in the Occupied Territories seem to reflect some of those lessons. These include coalitions formed among nationalist forces to stem the fundamentalist tide after the latter made substantial gains in Nablus University faculty and student council elections, as well as in the more significant engineers’ syndicate elections.

The current struggle for political space in the future Palestinian “self-governing authority” confronts the left with three major tasks. The first is to institutionalize a democratic opposition to any potential authoritarianism in future state organs. The second is to fight for widening constitutional freedoms to be adopted by the proposed legislative assembly, including a progressive personal status code — a demand currently raised only by two women’s groups. Lastly, the left must struggle to redefine the cultural domain in public life, particularly by sponsoring unabashedly secular programs in educational reform, press freedom and creative forums of popular culture.


[1] “Toward the Development of the Organizational and Ideological Structure of Our Party: From an Elitist Bureaucratic Centralist Party to a Democratic Progressive Party,” (undated, circulated April 1991), pp. 42-46; and “Third Conference of the DFLP: The Political Report,” (undated), pp. 37-40, 55-80.
[2] “The Political Program of the Palestinian People’s Party,” Sawt al-Watan (Nicosia), 27 (November 1991).
[3] DFLP, Political and Organizational Report Presented to the Third National Conference (undated, fall 1991), pp. 64-80.
[4] Ibid., p. 72-73.
[5] Ibid., p. 61.
[6] By contrast, the opposition left parties PFLP and DFLP-Hawatmeh (but not the newly formed Democratic Alliance) stress their adherence to Marxism-Leninism and castigate the “reformists” (i.e., the PPP and DFLP-Abed Rabbo) for their betrayal of socialism. See the 1991-92 issues of al-Hurriyya and al-Hadaf.
[7] See Rema Hammami, “Women, the Hijab and the Intifada,” Middle East Report 164-165 (May-August 1990).
[8] The details of this debate are discussed in Joost Hiltermann, Behind the Intifada, Labor and Women’s Movements in the Occupied Territories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 64-101.
[9] Ibid., p. 66.
[10] Ibid., pp. 66-71.
[11] Ibid., pp. 84-86.
[12] In part, equal representation was also dictated by the desire on the part of the United Leadership to involve all the main factions in the coordination of strike activities (which eventually excluded Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement), and partly because it sought consensus over the main political decisions that affected the direction of the intifada.
[13] On August 19, 1992, four parties of the left, including the Popular Front, the DFLP-Hawatmeh and two smaller groups based in Damascus, called for Palestinian withdrawal from the bilateral peace negotiations after the Bush administration approved $10 billion in loan guarantees to the Rabin government.
[14] It is not clear how one party can create an “alternative socialism” with such contending factions, a strain which is apparent from the statement of principle circulated January 5, 1992, announcing the formation of the Democratic Opposition.
[15] Interview with Mustafa Barghouti, Ramallah, February 20, 1992.

How to cite this article:

Salim Tamari "Left In Limbo," Middle East Report 179 (November/December 1992).

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