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Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine

Introduction (by Max Ajl)

In a well-known programmatic note on the relationship of theoretical work to politics, Harold Wolpe, a South African sociologist, anti-apartheid activist, briefly political prisoner, then exile, rejected two opposing positions on intellectual labor. The first was the assertion of complete autonomy, in the sense that research ought to simply emerge organically from the will and whims of the intellectual. The second was a stance of simple justification for the party line. Instead of those two opposing positions, he opted for a sort of accountable independence: “In this sense, the priorities defined at the political level became also the priorities of social research. But, and this is the fundamental point which cannot be overemphasized, not as conclusions but as starting points for investigation.” He also thought that in South Africa’s desperate situation, the labor of reconstructing the past needed to be relevant to the present. He called for the writing of “history which demonstrably contributes to an analysis upon which strategies are or should be based.”

Reading Wolpe’s note, I wondered how it might speak to the intellectual work of the wide array of people and organizations, Palestinian or non-Palestinian, who are in one way or another committed to the liberation of Palestine. I especially thought about how it might speak to a moment when Palestine studies itself is having a renaissance. The movement–or the moment–is leading to a new engagement with very old paradigms, periods, and methods, from increased interest in settler-colonialism, to global anti-racisms, to political economy and Marxist approaches. But if method inevitably goes a fair bit of the way towards determining what one will find, then method is also a kind of socio-political cartography. So what does it mean for a myriad often unaffiliated but (perhaps) not autonomous intellectuals to be choosing methods and paradigms that speak to strategy but seldom claim for themselves an unambiguous relationship to strategy–if any at all?

Wolpe wrote at a time when the national liberation struggle in South Africa had a plethora of disciplined organizations of varying ideological stripes. Those organizations had clear–if often clashing–priorities. They were mass groups which claimed leadership or coordinating roles with respect to the South African people themselves.

Our current moment is vastly different from 1985, when organizations within South Africa could locate themselves within and be buoyed by a globally rising anti-apartheid tide. It is less that the tide of global public opinion is with Israel. At the popular level, the pro-Palestine tide is flowing in hard and fast. But the Palestinian organizations capable of riding that tide exist in a lesser form, certainly, than did the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, or other smaller formations. The Palestinian political factions and the PLO absolutely continue to exist, to organize, and to structure political work across Palestine and in exile communities, as does the PLO. But they do not have the weight and strength they once had. And they certainly have their priorities–the demand for the refugees’ Right of Return, which the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign also demands. But RoR, to take one example, means different things to different formations and different individuals–the right to a passport and thus the categorical right to return home, the right to restitution of property, or shorthand for decolonization. We are not in a moment without priorities. We are more in a moment when many understand those priorities differently.

So how can supportive intellectuals orient to the different priorities of the Palestinian people when different political formations–none with clear claims to leadership of the Palestinian people–interpret them differently, and have different political programs for their realization? Few who write specifically on Palestine would claim that there is no normative or embryonically programmatic or strategic notion underlying their analysis. If we write on settler-colonialism, there is often a notion of decolonization; if on the influence of various streams of capital on post-Oslo elite collaboration, with an eye towards undermining collaboration; if on the US supplies of arms and capital to Israel, an eye toward cutting them off. But where these priorities, programs, and nascent strategies come from is a different question altogether. How they speak more directly to the moment is another. How they remain accountable to an inchoate movement rather than solidified organizations is a third.

For that reason, in early 2016 I asked a number of politically engaged researcher-writer-activists to reflect on the Wolpe text, and what it might mean for intellectual production as it relates to work in support of the Palestinian struggle. I tailored questions for each person, in part based on location or origin–Israel, Palestinian, international–with specific questions for Steven Friedmann, who provides crucial added context on the work of Wolpe. Below are their answers.

Max Ajl (MA): Since you just published a book on Harold Wolpe, you know he famously argued for intellectuals to take the political priorities of the liberation movement as a starting point for investigation. What did this mean for his own theoretical work?

Steven Friedmann (SF): Wolpe’s argument was an attempt to balance loyalty to the movement with intellectual independence–the movement decided the research agenda but did not tell intellectuals what conclusions they should reach. This did allow him to produce innovative theoretical work which broke decisively with movement orthodoxy. His emphasis on class and on the opportunities for resistance opened by reform challenged thinking in the liberation movement although he was at pains not to do this overtly. However, it also constrained him and, in one important article, rendered him incoherent. Having argued in the first half against a cornerstone of movement orthodoxy, the view that class considerations should be subordinated to the fight for racial equality, he spent the second half defending that which he had criticized. The strength of Wolpe’s position was that it argued against the power plays of intellectuals who try to dominate the movements they join or support. The weakness was that it limited his contribution by prompting him not to follow arguments to their logical conclusion for fear of appearing disloyal. It also undermined the credibility of his theoretical work because readers were never sure how much of his perspective he was suppressing in the interests of loyalty to the movement.

MA: How was this theoretical work received by the ANC? By the SACP?

SF: While Wolpe partly sacrificed his intellectual credibility to loyalty to the ANC and SACP, they showed little or no direct interest in his work. While some ANC intellectuals have insisted that the movements did take the work seriously, Wolpe himself realised that they did not. To his great chagrin, none of his theoretical papers were published in African Communist, the theoretical journal of the SACP, and there is little evidence that the ANC was influenced by his work. On the one occasion on which Wolpe believed the SACP was taking his perspective seriously–when he was asked to help prepare for a key meeting in Cuba in the late 1980s–it emerged that he had been invited not because the party leadership wanted his view on race and class, but because a section of the party wanted him to help win a battle over negotiation strategy. There is no evidence that Wolpe shifted the SACP’s thinking. The ANC and SACP did not denounce his ideas–they ignored them. It is not clear whether they were reacting to the content of his writing or whether he lacked credibility because he avoided routine activist work and remained firmly within the academy. The willingness to perform routine tasks is regarded by most movements as an important sign of loyalty and Wolpe failed that test.    

The word “direct” was used earlier because Wolpe’s work did feature in documents which were taken seriously by the ANC and SACP but only, perhaps, because his ideas reached them through an intermediary. SACP general secretary Joe Slovo was a close friend of Wolpe’s and his essay No Middle Road was clearly influenced by Wolpe’s ideas, but this work did not challenge movement orthodoxy. It could, therefore, be argued that even when his work was used, it reinforced rather than changed thinking.

Wolpe’s failure to influence the movements he served, however, does not mean that he influenced no one. Because his ideas were published in academic papers, they reached students and activists who were strongly influenced by them–this influence percolated into the trade union movement and the activism inside the country which was largely outside the control of the ANC and SACP.      

MA: Do you see a relationship between Wolpe’s prescriptions and the Palestinian struggle?

SF: Yes. It may be useful to distinguish between two aspects of the struggle–that which is led by the political movements and factions and that in civil society. In the former, Wolpe’s prescription, despite its limits on independent thinking, is a reminder that intellectuals cannot contribute to the Palestinian struggle if they are simply meant to repeat party lines. While movements should not accept what sympathetic intellectuals say at face value, they should take new ideas seriously. Having observed the dynamics between intellectuals and the movements, I find it hard to see it as one of mutual respect. Part of the problem seems to be a deep suspicion of intellectuals and of new ideas. This must weaken the movements by ensuring that they do again and again what has failed in the past. However, the intellectuals may also be failing to heed Wolpe’s respect for movements by simply dismissing them rather than trying to understand and work with them.

Among civil society activists, Wolpe’s warning that intellectuals need to avoid imposing themselves on movements is very pertinent. This struggle is severely weakened by intense cliquishness and a tendency to magnify arcane ideological disputes into major points of difference. Much of this stems from fights between intellectuals who seem more interested in dividing the pure from the impure than in connecting with the Palestinian people. This is a symptom of the absence of an organized base but it ensures that this weakness will continue. Wolpe’s willingness to limit his influence on the movement should offer a corrective. 

MA: Wolpe argued that “Of great importance in this regard is the question of class alliances and this raises, more urgently and more immediately than before, the issue of the relationship between the national struggle and the socialist struggle.” How did this play out in South Africa in terms of the choices of the SACP and the ANC? What were the consequences of those choices in the post-apartheid era?

SF: This aspect of Wolpe’s thought is often misunderstood. He was not arguing that a nationalist struggle for majority rule should be supplanted by a fight for socialism. He argued that the nationalist struggle could be articulated in different ways–as a narrow, elitist, concern to ensure that positions of economic and social domination were no longer defined by race or a broader popular nationalism which sought to empower the poor and democratize the economy–but not to install socialism. This recognized that the power of racial oppression was a concrete reality in the lives of the poor and workers and that this made it impossible for the nationalist struggle to give way to a purely class-oriented alternative, but it was possible to imagine a nationalism based far more firmly in the lived experience of workers and the poor and far more oriented to their concerns.

While the ANC and SACP paid lip service to these concerns, they were never integrated into their strategic thinking before or after the defeat of formal apartheid. During the struggle, the ANC tended to see popular organization and grassroots initiative as a threat rather than an opportunity. It did not play a role in building the trade union movement which was a pivotal force in the fight against apartheid and seemed more interested in channeling it, and other forms of grassroots activism, into ANC structures than in strengthening them. This played a major role in ensuring the pattern of development in the post-apartheid era, which has been marked by black inclusion in the cozy club of economic insiders rather than a more inclusive development strategy. This does not mean that nothing has changed since democracy’s advent. A black middle class has emerged and this has important implications for the present and future. However, it does mean that the apartheid-era division between insiders and outsiders remains, constituted in a less overtly racist way.              

MA: What kind of analytical or theoretical work do you engage in?

Abdel Razzaq Takriti (AT): My work examines the history and politics of revolutions, focusing on the world of their cadres and leaderships; the social and economic structures that sustained them; the transnational and solidarity networks to which they belonged; as well as their intellectual and cultural context. In pursuing these themes, I engage with theories of anti-colonialism, radical traditions, sovereignty, republicanism, and state formation. So far, I have written a book on the Dhufar revolution in Oman, and I am currently co-authoring, with Professor Karma Nabulsi, a history of the Palestinian revolution of the 1960s and 70s. The two of us are also launching a major digital humanities website focusing on teaching and disseminating primary documents, oral histories, and visual material relating to the Palestinian struggle in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Shir Hever (SH): I focus on the theory of differential accumulation, also known as “capital as power” which was developed by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan over the past twenty years, and has accumulated a small following. My work is that of political economy, but purely materialistic (Marxist) explanations have not given me sufficient tools to analyze historical developments in Israel/Palestine. This led me to seek political economy tools from outside the Marxist tradition, such as those of institutional political economy (Thorstein Veblen, and his concepts of “sabotage” and “conspicuous consumption”) and from Pierre Bourdieu (“social capital”). A great deal of my work focuses on cases of privatization and neoliberalism. Of course there exists a large body of analysis of these topics in political science, international relations, law, history, and other fields, so I do not restrict myself to literature from a single discipline.

A very important part of my research is to combine empirical and quantitative data in the analysis. Part of my work is the analysis of statistical data and financial reports of companies. I find that the theory of differential accumulation is very suited for the combination of quantitative data with critical political economy analysis.

Raja Khalidi (RK): Since I first researched the Palestinian economy in 1981, pretty much everything I have produced has been about the type of economic development and policy priorities that support the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation and rights. Certainly in my own head, what I have studied, the manner in which I analyze Palestinian economic issues, and the purpose for which I do so has always been informed by the priorities of the national liberation movement at different points in time. My earliest work was about how to strengthen the role and performance of PLO economic institution building in the pre-1982 era of semi-sovereignty in Lebanon. I subsequently spent several years trying to understand and explain to Palestinian policy makers (and the academic community) how the Arab economy in Israel could be reinforced within the context of a growing role of Palestinians in Israel in the Palestinian national struggle. Then, as a UN economist for over twenty-five years, the focus of my research and reporting on the Palestinian economy shifted. It went from first exposing to an international audience the adverse economic impact of Israeli colonial policies to supporting the elaboration of Palestinian economic policies and institutions for development (or survival) under occupation and under self-government. Today, my core concern is how to direct economic analysis and policy design for Palestinians in their increasingly fragmented and separated contexts in a way that empowers and enables resistance to Israeli colonial rule and economic domination.

Charlotte Kates (CK): I am primarily an activist and an organizer engaged in political work and direct advocacy. Just as I am sure that many people who do most of their direct political work through research and analysis are sometimes frustrated by the demands on their time that prevent them from other work, I share this experience–the constant political need to respond and address emergent situations and attempt, together with others, in a collective environment, to develop and apply a comprehensive analytical and theoretical framework to guide our political response in a strategic direction. 

So much of my analytical/theoretical work comes in the context of engagement with political organizing, in a collective environment. I am the coordinator of Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network and I work on many Palestine solidarity initiatives and also work together with Palestinian community organizing projects. I also have done some long-form writing on Palestinian political prisoners and the history of the Palestinian national movement both in the United States and in Palestine, through focusing on campaigns in defense of Rasmea Odeh and Ahmad Sa’adat. Such work has also meant analyzing PA security coordination given its massive effects on the Palestinian national movement. So all of this, of course, is connected to a vital and strong national liberation movement, despite its weaknesses, difficulties, and contradictions, and to a deep history of struggle that has so much value to inform our work today.

MA: What do you see as the relationship of your analytical work to the national liberation struggle and its priorities?

AT: Historians of revolutions commonly play a part in contemporary debates, but their roles differ depending on the current context of the revolution they are working on. Some revolutions, such as the American or French, are foundational moments for stable and powerful states that have achieved a level of national sanctification. Interpretations of these revolutions are often utilized to critique the reigning orders that claim descent from them or to legitimate competing political positions in the present. To appreciate that fact one need only take a look at the contrast between the narratives of Lefebvre and Furet on the French revolution, or at the divergence between the establishment view of the American revolution and radical analyses such as those provided by Charles Beard and more recently Gerald Horne. More proximate events, such as the Iranian or Cuban revolutions, have an even more intense contemporary bearing. In one way or another, every political movement in these countries derives its raison d’être from its specific stance towards the revolution.

However, nowhere is the history of revolution more pertinent than in ongoing struggles. In such settings, how the past is viewed has clear implications for current strategy, mobilization, and morale. This is why revolutionary practitioners–from Blanc  to Kropotkin, Lenin to Trotsky, Guevara to Fanon–wrote works underlined by a keen historical consciousness of revolution. Every one of these revolutionaries saw themselves as operating in the context of a radical political tradition. Some approached revolution diachronically, seeking inspiration from the struggles of the past, while others examined synchronic links, contextualizing each revolutionary situation in relation to similar events unfolding across the world.

In our own Palestinian context, revolutionary intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s pursued both approaches, reflecting on the 1936 Palestine revolt as well as a host of anti-colonial revolutions in Algeria, Vietnam, China, and Cuba. Beyond formal intellectual circles and at a more micro level, every organizer in Palestine or in Palestinian refugee communities is in one sense or another a historian, drawing on the local, national, or international experiences and recollections of older cadres in order to frame their own conception of what is to be done in the here and now.

However, there is another dimension that is worth taking into account here, which is that of writing revolution under the shadow of colonialism. As much as it is a material process that entails physical domination or removal of the colonized, colonialism is an act of historical and political erasure. The ultimate colonial fantasy is to completely pacify and demobilize the colonized, forcing them to surrender to the conclusion that all past and present resistance is futile. This was understood by founding figures of Zionism early on. In his famous 1923 essay “The Iron Wall,” Vladimir Jabotinsky states:

Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel.” 

The “spark of hope” that Jabotinsky was referring to does not only emanate from speculation about future revolutionary possibilities, but also from attitudes to the revolutionary past. To cite a classic example, when CLR James penned his remarkable history of the Haitian revolution, he was driven by the desire to “stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa.” At the same time as he was digging deep into past resistance, James had his gaze fixed on the new possibilities of tomorrow. In this vein, I am cognizant in my own work of the fact that every movement draws on a conception of itself, an interpretation of its own past (as well as that of sister struggles), in order to make sense of–and intervene in–the present and ultimately shape the future.

SH: In the years 2005-2010 I worked at the Alternative Information Center and my research was directly tied to a political organization. Those were the formative years of my research, and I was surrounded by political activists who informed me what kind of research was needed and urgent for helping to decipher and frame current events. During those years I allowed the political priorities of the joint Palestinian-Israeli struggle against the occupation, against apartheid, and for social justice to guide the priorities of my research.

Writing my PhD dissertation, however, does not allow these priorities. The academic research process is too slow to keep up with the rapidly changing political reality. While writing my PhD, I also take breaks to write short reports and studies which are commissioned by NGOs. These reports are guided by the funding available to NGOs, but I choose to write reports which I think are politically relevant, and which can support the BDS movement, or expose Israeli violations.

I should make a small comment about the term “national liberation struggle,” because I do not see my work as part of a Palestinian or an Israeli national liberation struggle, but rather a liberation struggle which transcends nationalities. In fact, I have decided to discontinue several research projects when I felt that they position me as the “Israeli” who offers an interpretation on the Palestinian political situation. So I do not publish on the Fatah-Hamas split, on the choices of Palestinians to boycott Israeli goods (from the Palestinian side, I do research the impact on the Israeli economy), and other topics which I feel could be interesting in the framework of a “national liberation struggle” but not conductive for an Israeli scholar to engage in.

RK: As an economist with training in political economy and development, the bulk of my recent and older analytical work on the Palestinian economy has had an empirical focus and purpose. It is not consciously informed or necessarily bound by specific theoretical or ideological frameworks. While mindful of the constantly evolving debate in economic and development theory, as well as of critical trends in the social science disciplines that have a relevance to the Palestinian condition, my concern has always been how to leverage the analysis of “facts” in a manner that heightens awareness of realities and creates “policy” that is capable of effecting change on the ground. Even when I worked on this subject within the political and intellectual confines of the United Nations, this processing of knowledge from the vantage point of critical development theory rarely required resort to theoretical substantiation in order to press a point towards building a new consensus around a policy position that formally bound member states. As an independent researcher today, my interest has been less to address public policy from the vantage point of those in power, as to speak to public and expert opinion and actually challenge ruling structures and dominant ideologies. 

CK: If we view the priorities of the national liberation struggle as the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the liberation of Palestine, then the analytical work that I am involved with indeed, to use Wolpe's phrase, “takes these as starting points for investigation.” If we are going to be part of a national liberation movement rather than substitutes for that movement, then it is our responsibility to take those priorities as a starting point to investigate social and class relations and international structures of power that maintain the systems that the national liberation movement seeks to overturn. 

The Palestinian national liberation movement historically encouraged research and analysis, in multiple languages. It is true that the results of this research was at times rejected by dominant leadership within the PLO; it is also true that the Palestine Research Center truly was a space of creative analysis and incisive work, of understanding the Zionist state and the Palestinian movement. This is why the PRC's office was attacked and looted, and then its archives destroyed by a bomb in Beirut in 1983. Like the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani in 1972, the attack on the PRC was a military assault on Palestinian intellectual production oriented toward the national liberation struggle. To be clear, the PRC was fully affiliated with the PLO. It was a national Palestinian institution. Just as, to be clear, Kanafani was a member of the Political Bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These were not academic spaces once or twice removed from the movement itself, but deeply involved in revolutionary knowledge production and strategy. 

As an international activist involved in Palestine work, it is important to note that many international researchers, writers, artists, and other participants were involved with the work of the PRC and other aspects of the Palestinian national movement, including writing, art, and other knowledge production for the movement. However, because the guiding framework of this work was collectively oriented toward the goals and priorities of the Palestinian national liberation movement, the relationship of international participants to the movement was quite clear and politically grounded. Many of the struggles faced today in the movement are at least partially reflections of the systematic dismantling of the institutions of the Palestinian national liberation movement in the post-Oslo period and the replacement of politically oriented and revolutionary institutions with more traditional academic structures. These institutions highlight individual contributions and prize a form of independence that goes beyond intellectual honesty to place researchers, scholars, and strategists as external, “unaffiliated” commentators and analysts of a movement rather than participants playing a specific and valuable role. 

MA: Do you see a difference between analytical work now, in the aftermath of the BDS call, and before that call? Or before and after Oslo?

AT: Perhaps we should not just look at changes in the nature of the analytical work, but also account for the shift in the way the Palestinian body politic functioned after Oslo. The greatest tragedy of the Oslo years was the disenfranchisement of the Palestinian refugee and exile communities of the shatat through freezing the PLO and the Palestine National Council. This was essential to adopting Oslo and it reflected the logic underlying the entire process. It was especially encouraged through direct intervention from the United States of America and the European countries. These powers invested heavily in creating a parallel Palestinian political system (the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Legislative Council) that excluded all Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza, and placed those inside the 1967 Occupied Territories in a position of direct dependency on Western donors and Israeli whim.

Within Palestinian grassroots circles, and outside the formal party structures, the response to this reality developed gradually. However, a new trend emerged, geared towards protecting the various national rights that were being threatened by the Oslo process. While these rights were previously defended by the PLO, the absence of this national body meant that they were now taken up by the grassroots. This was the background to a variety of movements and analytical approaches that gained steam from the 1990s onwards: the struggle, within the shatat, for defending the right of return; the fight for equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the struggle for all the rights that are regularly denied in the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories. By the end of the second intifada, these rights-based movements effectively shaped the main demands of the BDS call.

Once the call was launched, BDS gave those in solidarity with Palestine a focal point around which to organize and horizon for achieving concrete gains, especially within countries that enable and support Israeli colonial policies. Of equal importance, the BDS framework centered political campaigning for justice for Palestine around key principles of the Palestinian struggle.

Of course, there still remains a bigger task at hand for all Palestinians, which is the reconstitution of our national structures and their revitalization and democratization (in the radical rather than formal sense of the term). Only these structures, especially the Palestine National Council, have the capacity and legitimacy to draw a comprehensive national liberation strategy. This is where analytical and organizing energies are most urgently required. More than ever, our intellectual class needs to return to our people, listen to their voices, work towards pushing for popular enfranchisement in our political system, and reclaim our currently co-opted institutions.    

RK: I do not think that my work has been influenced by the BDS call, which serves largely as an impetus for solidarity mobilizing rather than a framework for analyzing Palestinian-Israeli issues. Nor do I think that the recent growth in interest in settler colonial studies in the Palestinian context is linked to BDS. Rather, they are both a response to the intellectual bankruptcy of mainstream academic and “expert” analysis of Palestinian development issues that has held sway over conventional wisdom especially in the past decade since the defeats suffered by the Palestinian national movement during the second intifada. Certainly the “peacebuilding” mindset in place since Oslo helped to pacify critical Palestinian intellectual production since the 1990s and channel it into a variety of directions that ultimately delayed and diverted the national liberation agenda. However, it is only since the end of the Arafat regime which continued until 2004 to demonstrate resistance to the confines of Oslo that conditions emerged which strengthened domination by Israel and facilitated the prevalence of neoliberal ideology over much of Palestinian life in its “metropole” of Ramallah and the PA regime. I believe that it is the latter development, especially since 2010, that has prompted a much greater attention to critical social science in the Palestinian context, indeed to a surge in scholarship and policy advocacy that is challenging and resisting the status quo that has taken hold after twenty years of Oslo. This is a welcome breath of fresh air in an otherwise moribund body of literature on Palestinian economic and social issues that is increasingly detached from the purposes of national liberation and instead is focused on reform and virtual “state-building.”

CK: In terms of before and after Oslo, there is a clear difference. The systematic dismantling of Palestinian national institutions, especially those outside Palestine, has been and continues to be devastating to the entire Palestinian national liberation movement. This is not only true in the context of the loss of national institutions like the General Union of Palestinian Students as a truly active and transnational body of Palestinian students, but also in the context of research and analysis.

There have been and are various attempts through the formation of NGOs and independent projects to recreate Palestinian centers of study–Bisan, al-Marsad, and others, which are producing excellent and extremely valuable work in this field. There is no lack of projects and Palestinian bodies developing knowledge, systemic and structural analysis, and strategic visions for Palestinian liberation. However, because Oslo, the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the shift in financial priorities, not to mention ongoing security coordination with the occupation state have threatened so dramatically the coherence of the liberation movement, the excellent work that is being done faces significant obstacles in reaching a necessary audience and the Palestinian movement more broadly. Of course, just as in the past, we continue to see Israeli repression. Eteraf Rimawi, the executive director of Bisan Center for Research and Development, which is producing incredibly valuable work in this context that remains oriented toward serious analysis of the Palestinian situation with an eye toward liberation, is currently being held without charge or trial under Israeli administrative detention. His detention was just renewed several weeks ago. 

There is almost no aspect of the Palestinian struggle which has not been deeply impacted by Oslo in a significantly negative way, even over twenty years later. That is one reason it remains so important to continue to surface, archive, and highlight the work of previous generations of researchers, writers, and strategists of the movement at the collective high point of intellectual inquiry and political commitment. 

The BDS call has been said to represent a Palestinian national consensus in the way that the pre-Oslo PLO represented the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. (And, to be fair, the PLO as an institution and an identity, despite the practices of its monopolistic officialdom, still has the strongest claim to that position, which is why all Palestinian factions, even those not in the PLO, at least claim to seek to rebuild it to once again fulfill that status.) It is certainly a call of great importance for the Palestinian movement and the Palestine solidarity movement. It reflects a call for material action that certainly does reflect a Palestinian consensus for the boycott of Israel and the achievement of basic Palestinian demands, highly similar in content to the Palestinian national constants discussed by the PLO or the Palestinian political organizations. It should be noted that the political parties and factions are a strong source of support for the BDS call, both in their official sense as the Palestinian National and Islamic Forces and through the participation of unions and institutions that reflect the political voices of various Palestinian parties.

The BDS call is a priority for action and organizing; it has also spurred strong research into the connections between corporations and the Zionist state and the role of global capital in the maintenance of occupation and oppression. To the extent that it presents clear and common Palestinian demands, it can play a significant role in refocusing discussion and so help to avoid unnecessary and undermining debates about whether the right of return is truly central–unfortunately, all too common in the post-Oslo period. 

The call is a means for mobilization and action for international solidarity. It is not and does not claim to be a replacement for the national liberation movement, which is a comprehensive Palestinian struggle on multiple levels for the liberation of Palestine. It is a part of that national liberation movement. It is a call that people and states around the world should listen to, organize around, and actively enact. 

It is also not a comprehensive national liberation movement or program and does not claim to be–it is a means of popular struggle to provide a material means of helping to push the boot of Zionism and imperialism from the neck of the Palestinian people. The BDS call is spurring excellent research and analytical work in the areas it focuses on. 

At the same time, what is needed for the liberation of Palestine is the reconstruction and rebuilding of the full national liberation movement of the Palestinian people and its institutions. This is also the case for analytical work that spans the full spectrum of liberation and the current condition of the Palestinian people. 

MA: Wolpe argued that “the structural analysis, is also a task for the national liberation movement, but it is the priority task for researchers and it is here that they can make their most significant contribution.” Do you agree?

AT: Wolpe’s own position must be contextualized here. He was active within a situation that is quite different from that confronted by Palestinian intellectuals today. As a loyal member of the South African Communist Party and the broader South African national liberation movement, he was a party intellectual in the strictest sense of the term. Wolpe’s theory of praxis emanated out of his specific location within the political sphere; his challenge was to delineate the respective roles of the party intellectual and the party. As far as he was concerned, it was not the task of the party intellectual to pursue the narratives of national and class consciousness, for that was the responsibility of the party as the principal vehicle of popular mobilization. Instead, the intellectual was to provide the party with an analysis of the structural challenges that confront the national movement as a whole, so that mobilization could be channeled in the most successful direction possible. In the absence of effective Palestinian parties within an active national structure (the PLO) today, Palestinian intellectuals grapple with a very different challenge than that confronted by Wolpe and his comrades.

Equally, it is worth also taking account of the particular intellectual climate that Wolpe was part of. He was contributing to the structure/agency debates raging within communist parties and circles worldwide. On the one hand, there was the Althusserian school, which included luminaries such as Nicos Poulantzas that emphasized structural analysis, primarily focusing on studying the capitalist state. On the other hand, a different brand of Marxist intellectuals, including EP Thompson, were focusing on the question of consciousness and the formation of the working class. Wolpe clearly belonged to the former group. While he has a lot to say about the South African state and the class alliances and contestations underlying it, he dedicates less space to South African popular movements and their cadres.

The limitations of his approach have been extensively analyzed. Methodologically, the structuralist school associated with Althusser was critiqued by numerous authors, including Thompson. It should also not be forgotten that even the staunchest Althusserians such as Poulantzas moved away from their earlier purely structuralist positions, as can be seen in their latter writings More specifically to Wolpe, and as shown in an excellent essay by Michael Burawoy, the emphasis on structuralism led to a stark and debilitating conclusion in 1987 that emphasized that neither a military solution nor a negotiated settlement was possible in South Africa given the structural realities prevailing at the time. Of course, a negotiated settlement was arrived at soon thereafter!

In the current Palestinian context, going back to the dated debates arising from the structure/agency dichotomy is of little use. However, this is not to suggest that a structural approach has no relevance. Clearly, any cogent political analysis will have to take account of the structural determinants of the Israeli colonial system as well as the global powers that sustain it, including the United States and Europe. This helps, for instance, in confronting myths such as the possibility of change occurring from within the system. Likewise, a structural understanding of the Palestinian Authority and its policies ranging from Fayyadism to Abu Mazen’s state bid is necessary, not the least to outline their role in sustaining the status quo and incapacity for producing meaningful change. Substantial scholarly energies are currently devoted to these issues, but that is not enough. What is also needed, much more urgently I would add, is a careful analysis of how our national movement, its PLO structures, and its constituent parties could be revived as vehicles that could embody popular sovereignty and rejuvenate the enormous energies of our people.

SH: The statement sounds very much in the spirit of Marx’s view on “the intellectuals” and also in Edward Said’s book Representations on the Intellectual. This notion was taken up by many Israeli scholars, such as those who published the book Real Time (in Hebrew) during the second intifada. Today, most of these scholars (and myself, although I did not participate in that book) have left Palestine and live in Europe or in North America.

I think that there is a deep crisis in contemporary academia. The explosion in the number of students and the extreme scarcity in teaching and research positions create an effort to “standardize” academic excellence, which means taking out meaning and originality from academic work. Many of the PhD dissertations which earned doctorates for the generation of professors who are today guiding students would not have passed today, because they are too innovative. Being a scholar today can be extremely daunting and frustrating, with very little material rewards. Therefore, I believe that many scholars seek to be politically relevant in order to imbue their scholarly work with meaning, as a coping mechanism with the boring reality of research. Unfortunately, publishing sharp words will in itself not end injustice. It can only help strengthen the hands of the activists. We should be careful that when we consider our research to be “significant” to the liberation movement, we do so because of input that we receive from activists on the ground and not because of our own interests (although it is not immoral to write out of personal interest, of course).

As a political economist, I find that the most important work that needs to be done and directly relates to the liberation movement is the kind of work which will not earn its authors academic advancements. It is necessary to conduct a survey of human rights violations supported by Israeli universities, to measure the impact of BDS on Israeli companies, to generate statistics on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, etc. This kind of work is not considered “theoretical” enough to be published in academia, unfortunately.

RK: There is a major disconnect between the Palestinian national liberation movement’s constituent organizations and leaderships, on the one hand, and (especially critical) social science scholarship on the other. Whereas the latter to a great extent was produced for (and served) the former in the pre-Oslo “revolutionary” period, the manner in which political power was organized and managed since then has allowed a bifurcation in the paths of critical (structural) analysis and official PLO policy and decision making (political, economic, or social). Increasingly, power has surrounded itself with a chorus of “expertise” and policy advisors which validate and justify the perpetuation of the ruling regime and the capitalist and intellectual elites in alliance with it. So while critical thought will and must continue to advocate for a return to the revolutionary mode and stance of interaction between knowledge and power, if alternative thinking does not also permeate and respond to popular, mass thinking, then it will ultimately be sidelined by the interests that are most vested in maintaining the status quo. So, yes, scholarship must continue to break new ground and go where others dare not tread, but its ultimate validation can only be realized if it can be translated into words that are understood by all and actions that can mobilize the many, not just the few.

CK: Structural analysis is critical to any national liberation movement, and to any struggle in our stratified, class society, in order to expose, understand and confront the enemy–the forces, institutions, and classes that hold power. The movement needs to have a clear view of the structural forces confronting it in order to build its own forces and determine tactics and targets. This clearly can be a significant task for researchers and analysts, working together and as part of the national liberation movement with a political commitment to that movement while engaging in the broadest intellectual and structural inquiry. There is often a great deal of discussion about a lack of strategy or strategic vision, and to the extent that this is a valid critique, it reflects as much the absence–and the necessity–of solid and clear structural analysis in the service of a revolutionary movement, as it does the contradictions, suppression, or absence of the level of revolutionary leadership necessary to implement that strategy.

MA: I only posed this question to Hever: “How do you see your work in relation to both the colonial question and class/race question in Israel?”

SH: I have already started answering this question at the end of the previous question. Here is the place to stress the issue of privilege. The BDS call makes a special exception for Israelis, who are not expected to boycott themselves, and yet it calls on Israelis to join the movement. I believe that Israelis are ideally positioned to aid the BDS movement with the act of research, publication, and dissemination of information. I try to base my academic work on the special access which I have as an Israeli (my ability to use Hebrew, to approach Israeli officials, to visit the National Library, etc.,) in order to create knowledge which could be useful for Palestinian and international scholars.

My work is also strongly influenced by the colonial identity which I possess. The only thing which prevents me from being a Palestinian is my privilege as part of the colonial-settler population (even though I do not live in Palestine anymore, but I still carry only an Israeli passport). During my work I frequently encounter the dilemma on how to write about the Palestinian government (as an agent of the Israeli occupation or as a leading force of Palestinian resistance against the occupation). Even though virtually all of my Palestinian colleagues have very clear views on the matter, I feel that expressing similar views from the position of an Israeli would not carry the same meaning.

In my political work in Germany, my Jewish identity becomes much more important than it was before. This, however, has not yet manifested itself in my scholarly work, which I publish in English and not yet in German.

MA: Wolpe argued that “Of great importance in this regard is the question of class alliances and this raises, more urgently and more immediately than before, the issue of the relationship between the national struggle and the socialist struggle.” Do you see this as having relevance to the national liberation struggle? If so, how?

AT: Once again, I think it is important to highlight here key differences between South Africa and Palestine. Wolpe was writing about a colonial situation that depended, as he himself highlighted, on a dialectic tying racial segregation with the development of capitalism. In his influential analysis, a major shift in economic relations in the country had ushered in, by the 1940s, a deep political crisis that resulted in apartheid.

In contrast, although some try to analyze Israeli colonialism solely in terms of its economic logic, this is a problematic approach. Zionism, was, by its very nature geared towards removing the natives rather than simply using them as a source of cheap labor. If anything, Zionist policies such as “Hebrew labor” were focused on creating a settler-colonist economy that was not dependent on the native worker. This is not to say that Palestinians never provided cheap labor. They obviously did for a long time, during and after the mandate, and especially after the 1967 war, but since Oslo, the Israeli state made sure to eradicate any dependence on Palestinian workers, drawing on a global labor force recruited from as far away as Thailand. Equally importantly, the structure of the new Israeli economy is radically different, relying today on high tech sectors that are not labor intensive. Last but not least, despite attempts to reduce Palestine to the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian struggle continues to be one of return as well as liberation and the majority of our people are refugees that are completely excluded from the economic system prevailing within the boundaries of their historic homeland. For these reasons and many others, the fantasy of convincing working class Israelis to abandon Zionism and join ranks with the Palestinians in a proletarian struggle for a socialist state is even more unattainable than it was in South Africa.

Do not get me wrong, class still matters in this struggle. Its significance is seen in every refugee camp; in the severe economic disparities between 1948 Palestinians and their Israeli overlords; in the mechanisms of economic cooptation deployed by the Palestinian Authority; and in recent mobilizations, including the impressive 2016 teachers’ strike, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Does this, however, mean that the Palestinians must adopt, in the immediate future, the struggle for socialism? In considering this question, we need to carefully distinguish between socialism as a moral commitment, as a political program, and as a position connected to particular theories of movement organization such as Marxism-Leninism. Disseminating and sustaining socialist principles and ideas is quite different than actually highlighting socialism as the immediate goal around which the people must be mobilized. The former endeavor is politically viable today, while the latter is not, and this has to do with global rather than local Palestinian factors.

In the environment of the 1960s and 70s, the red flag flew over many countries large and small, and was raised by a plethora of liberation movements, or at least significant sections within them as was the case in Palestine. Leninist models of revolutionary organizing were popular as they seemed to have worked in other international contexts. Socialism (in its radical rather than reformist articulation) was adopted by several Palestinian movements–ranging from the old Fateh left (the Soviet group as it was sometimes called) to the DFLP, PFLP, and the Israeli Communist Party–as the most socially just answer to the dilemma of ownership and distribution of the means and fruits of production. This was not just an abstract moral stance; it was also a position that had a genuine–if speculative–political horizon in the sense that if Palestine was liberated it would have had (at least in theory) the option of economically joining the international economic system that had been set up under Soviet leadership.

However, the fall of the USSR and the loss of faith in the idea that it was a model country, changed things, and predictably so. To be viable as a concrete economic program, socialism (as distinguished from social democracy or state capitalism) requires a global momentum, or at least a significant transformation in major states that boast large economies–as opposed to small, colonized, and fragmented countries such as Palestine. Even in the Soviet Union, an empire that covered one sixth of the globe’s landmass and housed one of the world’s largest populations, the question of whether socialism in one country was viable was hotly debated. As ever, the struggle for justice in Palestine is connected with struggles for justice elsewhere; whenever global justice movements gain in strength, the Palestinian people grow stronger.

RK: I have written in articles in Jadaliyya and in the past in Jacobin about the likelihood of a social agenda seizing the top billing in the struggle of the masses of Palestinian who are dispossessed, disfranchised, or impoverished. While the depth and scope of the Palestinian social and economic crisis brought about by decades of national oppression has been evident for several years (even as bourgeois, materialist, and liberal Ramallah and other urban centers continue to build and foster individual prosperity), the core dynamic of modern Palestinian politics (and perhaps even twentieth-century Palestinian history) has always been that the national trumps the social. Generation after generation of political leaders and nationalist factions and parties have successfully enveloped the Palestinian political domain with the “stage of national liberation” banner–to the general exclusion of the struggles for the rights of workers, peasants, women, or other “classes.” While the logic of that position continues to persuade many that national unity must prevail over all other differences, the exhaustion of the modern national movement, the evident failures of Oslo and the structures it created and the ageing of the national leadership seem to combine into a configuration that might soon tip the scales in favor of social upheaval leading the movement of the Palestinian masses, not to the exclusion of, but in tandem with new and continued forms of resistance to Israeli occupation. There might not be any conscious correspondence in the public eye between the virtual alliance between Palestinian capital and prolonged colonial rule in the context of economic peace. However, the contradictions between both of these forces and a wide swathe of the Palestinian people who have not benefitted from the “fruits of economic peace” seem to me to be increasingly evident and simultaneously coming to the fore in the current conditions of no war and no peace. It may not be about a struggle for socialism or a struggle by socialists, but there is no doubt that Palestine today provides fertile ground for a progressive social and economic agenda if such a coherent statement can be elaborated by effective forces on the ground, not simply by academics.

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The photography page aims to provide a space for reflection on photography in its various forms and uses in the Middle East. We showcase the work of photographers active in the region and cultivate critical thinking about photographic practices, representations, and history. The page publishes photo essays, articles, interviews, reviews and more. It also provides information on photographic archives, agencies, and institutions, exhibits, events, and publications.