Palestine, Revolutionary Morality, and Liberation: A Reply to La Botz and Shalom

Dan La Botz and Stephen R. Shalom’s recent writings in Tempest have scolded supporters of Palestinian armed resistance. Their abstract moralizing about October 7 comes as no surprise: despite their stated international socialism, a look at their past writings reveals a tendency towards philosophical idealism, and a definite drift rightward toward reformism and liberalism.

by | Feb 4, 2024

The current debate in Tempest between Dan La Botz and Stephen R. Shalom on one side, and Jonah ben Avraham and Sean Larson on the other, is an important one for the left. La Botz and Shalom have claimed ben Avraham and Larson are too soft on October 7. The latter have charged that the former are conditioning their solidarity. As we organize to stop the ongoing genocide in Palestine, it matters what our solidarity looks like and how far that solidarity goes.

Regardless of their claims or intentions, La Botz and Shalom have adapted to the terrain of abstract bourgeois morality, and have abandoned the revolutionary attitude toward self-determination. As a result, despite claiming “international socialism” and solidarity with Palestine, they have been inexorably pulled towards the United States and Israel’s camp.

Other recent pieces for Tempest have focused on important questions of history and the current struggle. We at Firebrand have written elsewhere on these subjects as well. Here, however, I want to take La Botz and Shalom at their words — and not only their words in Tempest.

In doing so, I see clear weaknesses in their politics. Instead of a historical materialist understanding of morals and democratic rights, they substitute a philosophical idealism right out of the 19th century. Instead of evaluating actions through a revolutionary perspective of rupture, Shalom gives us a confused mishmash of reformist pessimism and liberal “just war” discourse. Instead of consistently applying the ABCs of national liberation, they pick and choose.

This backsliding is not unique to their positions on Palestine. La Botz, for one, has politically drifted rightward in recent years. He has gone from saying “no way!” to the Occupy movement joining the Democrats, to voting for Biden and urging others to do so. From running as an independent socialist for Senate in 2010, he became a leading supporter of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

On a surface level, La Botz and Shalom’s arguments may seem unimpeachable (who could deny wanting to protect civilians?), but their position in fact elides a fundamental step backwards, away from socialism and away from solidarity.

Universal values?

Our starting point as internationalists should be advocacy of universal entitlement to democratic rights… Ends are substantially conditioned and prefigured by means; a politics pursued by means of indiscriminate slaughter of civilians cannot serve emancipatory ends.

So reads the recent “Left Renewal” statement that La Botz and Shalom signed with others including Slavoj Žižek and Howie Hawkins. Here we see the philosophy that these moralists advocate for the rest of the left. Far from a return to “class analysis,” this call for universality and its moral philosophy of ends and means are rooted in a philosophical idealism that has no place in Marxism or the class struggle.

All ideas — including morality and human rights — are products of the historical development of classes. These ideals and forms do not have a metaphysical or independent existence. This is the entire basis of Marx’s “turning Hegel on his head,” the foundations of historical materialism.

The frameworks of international human rights and just war are far from universal. These weren’t products of the evolution of the human spirit or absolute Truth. They emerged from historical developments: the defeat of the Axis powers and the emerging hegemony of the US after World War II. This new “humane” world order, despite its charters and declarations, kept most of the world enslaved and colonized by the old European powers.

Despite its supposed universality, international human rights law has never been applied equally or fairly. Nor could we expect it to be in a system of global imperialism, rife with inequality and contradictions. Where a dominant power exerts its will over a “weaker” state, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) can merely condemn. Where a “weaker” state demands justice for crimes by a dominant power, that power can simply ignore the result. A UN Security Council resolution is only as enforceable as the military power wielded behind it.

International law, then, is no more just and universal than our own “criminal justice” system. There, too, greater consequences come to those who steal from supermarkets than those who steal pensions. Individuals are executed for murder but war criminals who sell bombs are allowed to run the country. Law is a product of class relations and, in the international case, the imperial pecking order.

On a surface level, La Botz and Shalom’s arguments may seem unimpeachable (who could deny wanting to protect civilians?), but their position in fact elides a fundamental step backwards, away from socialism and away from solidarity.

“Universal” democratic values are yet another set of ideas that reflects the dominant class relations in society. Democracy under capitalism means democracy for the rich, and the covert and overt suppression of the exploited masses. Socialism represents, in Lenin’s terms, “democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people.” Only a society without classes can truly have universal democratic rights.

Even mourning and death are inherently political and products of material relations. As Devin Atallah has written:

As Palestinians, we do not have access to grieve our beloveds killed by Israeli settler-colonial and genocidal aggression… Grieving is for corpses that had access to livingness while alive.

Meanwhile, as Gabriel Winant warned in mid-October last year, the Israeli state machine is designed to transmute grief into violence. The dead from October 7,

are, we might darkly say, “pre-grieved”: that is, an apparatus is already in place to take their deaths and give them not just any meaning, but specifically the meaning that they find in the bombs falling on Gaza.

Regarding ends and means, we must not just look at the context before October 7. We must also put bourgeois reactions to October 7 in context with their reactions to Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. For all their continued outrage over Hamas, these same politicians justify an ongoing genocide as an act of self-defense.

Thus, to go back and focus on October 7 means to operate on exactly the terrain that Western imperialists and the Israeli state want us to. Without an extreme amount of caution and care on our part, this focus helps our ruling class — those with power over the “means of mental production” — to make Israel’s crimes seem more justifiable.

As an example of how this process works, US media and politicians have weaponized stories of sexual violence (even spreading unsubstantiated or debunked ones), while they have ignored Israeli media reports of the IDF’s killing of Israeli citizens on October 7.

If we must focus on October 7, as Shalom and La Botz have demanded, let us do so cautiously, as revolutionaries. As Leon Trotsky writes in Their Morals and Ours:

That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind. Since this end can be achieved only through revolution, the liberating morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed with a revolutionary character.

Therefore, the question is not whether the acts of October 7 violate some fundamental left position against killing innocent civilians. Instead, we must judge whether the acts represent an advance or setback for the liberation of Palestine — and, in turn, the victory of socialism and human liberation in general.

Shalom’s confusion

In some respects, Shalom understands this point. In his 2018 review of the collection Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel–Palestine’s Tough Questions, he doubts the effectiveness of any form of armed resistance:

It remains hard to see how an armed strategy as recommended by As’ad Abukhalil — particularly one that eschews civilian targets, as he also urges — can pressure, let alone defeat, Israel… Has there ever been a case where outside military force from a vastly weaker party has caused a state to fundamentally modify its domestic structures? Would full-on guerrilla war from outside (or inside) lead Israel to “gradually and incrementally” end its discrimination against its Palestinian minority?

Elsewhere, in a 2009 analysis of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza he writes:

Hamas foolishly and immorally decided that renewed rocket attacks would make Israel more accommodating. Immorally, because Israel’s punishment of innocent Palestinians does not justify punishment of innocent Israelis. Foolishly, because it played right into the hands of those Israeli leaders who wanted a war to redeem themselves and Israel’s military reputation after the debacle of the 2006 war with Lebanon. [emphasis added]

On the one hand, this shows that Shalom is willing to (at least partially) evaluate the suitability of tactics in a way a revolutionary should: their effectiveness in the struggle for liberation. On the other hand, this reveals that his hand wringing is not simply about the particular acts of October 7, but a broader issue that Shalom has with armed resistance in general.

His judgment on these fronts, however, is flawed.

If military force from a “vastly weaker party” has never changed social structures, what are we to say about the Irish Rebellion of 1916 and subsequent guerilla war for independence in 1919? What of Angola’s war for liberation that preceded the collapse of Portugal’s army and the popular revolution there? Unpredictable events, including putsches, can send shockwaves in both their victories and defeats. On this score, brian bean and others have written a more nuanced balance sheet of October 7.

But for Shalom, instead of rupture, change is driven by movements finding a receptive ear among the powerful: either from a president (in the case of his support for Biden), or from the United Nations and the Israelis (in the case of his support for a two-state solution):

Maybe it’s true that the overwhelming endorsement that two states gets in UN votes is a cover for a distinct lack of enthusiasm, but if so it’s still got far more international backing than any one-state arrangement…

In terms of what can be achieved in the near term, the fact that while Israeli Jews oppose both one state and two states, they oppose the former far more strongly than the latter — while not morally relevant — is politically relevant.

This is gradualism and pessimism, not revolutionary struggle. The way he understands power and change is thoroughly inculcated with a reformist vision.

To go back and focus on October 7 means to operate on exactly the terrain that Western imperialists and the Israeli state want us to. Without an extreme amount of caution and care on our part, this focus helps our ruling class — those with power over the “means of mental production” — to make Israel’s crimes seem more justifiable.

Shalom and La Botz lambast Larson for his charge that they are acting as “referees of anticolonial movements.” Yet in reading through piece after piece that he’s published, it’s clear that Shalom consistently applies principles of international law — human rights and just-war frameworks — to pass judgments on developments in Palestine and the occupying force. In true middle-class, fence-sitting fashion, he wrings his hands over both the violence of the oppressor and the responses of those they oppress.

Unlike Shalom, the most important question for us is not whether, say, Israel’s 1967 war was a “just preemptive war” — whether the Zionist state faced an “imminent attack” or not. The most important question is which side represented a colonizing force backed by a major imperial power. The same is true of the situation today. Contrary to Shalom and La Botz, the “legitimate means” standard of international humanitarian law should not be our guidepost.

As Lenin writes in his 1915 Socialism and War:

If tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on Russia, and so forth, those would be “just” “defensive” wars, irrespective of who attacked first; and every Socialist would sympathize with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slave-owning, predatory “great” powers.

To be fair, Shalom doesn’t admit to being a completely impartial referee. He stands with Palestinians, at least to a point. But by staying on the terrain of bourgeois law and rights, his solidarity and sympathies are still soured with bourgeois universalisms — tools of the enemy class we can never fully use to our advantage. He falls into the trap of evaluating acts rather than emphasizing their historical development. And as such, he supports Palestinians more when they die than when they fight.

La Botz forgets his ABCs

La Botz and Shalom state, “we support progressive forces from below, not reactionary or fundamentalist ones.”

All well and good. Revolutionaries, after all, seek progress from capitalism to full liberation for all peoples through a self-conscious world revolution by masses of people.

Yet it is rarely so simple. As Lenin wrote on the 1916 Irish rebellion, socialist revolution will always include the revolts of colonized nations and revolts of the middle class “with all its prejudices.” “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it.”

La Botz, who came to the International Socialists in 1969, seems to forget what their main thinker Hal Draper called “the ABCs of national liberation.” As Draper wrote that same year, national self-determination is a democratic demand, a constituent part of the struggle for socialism, “even if it means self-determination under an undemocratic national government, as it often has.”

Draper understood that revolutionaries should support the military victory of the colonized against a colonizing power — even in cases where social revolution was not on the immediate agenda. Such a victory would both weaken the forces of reaction in the oppressor nation and free the struggle in the colony to become one of class against class. This support was even true when the colonized were led by utter reactionaries, as Ethiopia was during its resistance against fascist Italy.

Draper separated military support from political support. Support the victory of the oppressed — or at least the defeat of the oppressor — no matter who might lead the struggle. In doing so, have a political analysis of the forces involved. Within a national liberation struggle, we seek to politically support those forces that best represent the politics of socialism and proletarian revolution. It is the same in any struggle for democratic demands.

La Botz, in some respects, understands this nuance. As he wrote about Nicaragua’s mass resistance to Daniel Ortega in 2018:

Within the Nicaraguan movement there are those in the business class — who have until recently gotten along just fine with Ortega — who would like a parliamentary government that they could control. But there are others who want a popular democracy that would represent the country’s majority, its working people. I support the fight for democracy against dictatorship but within that the demand for a popular democracy, and beyond that for genuine socialism from below.

In this case, we politically oppose Hamas. As my Firebrand comrades wrote elsewhere:

Hamas [is] a deeply compromised organization with leadership drawn from the Palestinian petty bourgeoisie, and funding and support drawn from the regional bourgeoisie in right-wing Islamic monarchies… If it ever came down to a struggle between Hamas and the workers of Gaza, there is no question that we, as Marxists, would take the side of the workers.

Yet first and foremost we are for the defeat of Israel and the liberation of Palestine. We do not condition those points on the politics of the leadership of Palestine’s struggle.

Morality, ceasefire, and liberation

So, what about the morality of October 7? Is it defensible, even by revolutionary socialist standards, as a step forward for the liberation of Palestine and all of humanity?

That question remains to be answered. Undoubtedly, the aftermath of October 7 has immensely increased the immediate suffering of Palestinians in Gaza — the tens of thousands of dead, the destroyed healthcare system, the systemized torture and displacement. This is perhaps the most documented genocide so far in human history.

Yet, returning to bean and others, October 7 was “the calculation at choosing a military gambit perhaps risking genocide in the context of facing a slow-motion genocide underway.” We have indeed seen an upset to the status quo: a flowering of global solidarity, the disruption of shipping, the further exposure of Israel and the US’s crimes. Whether it was worth it, as bean argues, is a determination that “rests firmly with the Palestinian movement.”

Shalom has had similar things to say about Ukraine. In his article about arms to Ukraine, Shalom contends that while fighting back carries the risk of more suffering,

this is a decision for the defenders to make themselves: they will bear the consequences and so only they can decide if the dangers of prolonging the fighting outweigh the costs of defeat.

So why does Shalom condemn one and not the other? Perhaps it is his adaptation to bourgeois morality and international law: Ukraine was invaded. Hamas attacked civilians. Again Shalom raises his referee whistle.

Without colonization and occupation, there would be no prison walls to smash through. There would be no basis for armed resistance groups. The kibbutz and the music festival would not sit a scant few miles from the world’s largest concentration camp.

In La Botz’s case, his commitment to “Western values” has led him to explicitly stand against immediate calls to dismantle NATO — one of the greatest purveyors of violence in the world:

[O]n one side of the NATO line are Europe’s democracies, including Ukraine, and on the other the authoritarian governments of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan… We do not believe that either the pacifist or the Leninist slogans [of defeatism] are appropriate for this moment in history.

In spite of their stated commitment to an internationalist, anti-campist position, Shalom and La Botz are upholding a thoroughly campist position themselves — that of the US-Israel camp. This camp, too, supports Ukraine but vilifies Palestine, often couched in the very same language of human rights and “legitimate” resistance that the two authors use.

As for us, revolutionaries in the US must do everything in our power to dismantle the forces oppressing Palestinians — namely, “our own” imperialism. Our moral obligation is to pass judgment on the imperial butchers first. Gaza’s deep human cost makes it imperative that we do not limit ourselves to a ceasefire and a return to the status quo, but push for Palestine’s complete liberation.

Should we mourn?

What then, of those killed on October 7? If we must say anything about October 7, even amid the genocide in Gaza, let us do more than repeat the tired arguments of the capitalist media. We must put the cause of these deaths squarely at the door of Israel’s colonization.

As Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a leader of the progressive Palestinian National Initiative and the Palestinian Medical Relief Society in the West Bank, said in an interview from October 8:

Of course Palestinians turn to resistance, because they see it’s the only way for them to get their rights… I don’t want any civilian to be hurt, neither by Palestinians nor by Israelis. But the question is how to end that?… There is one way to stop the violence and that is to end the Israeli occupation.

Without colonization and occupation, there would be no prison walls to smash through. There would be no basis for armed resistance groups. The kibbutz and the music festival would not sit a scant few miles from the world’s largest concentration camp.

The whole art of revolutionary politics is to reframe the “common sense” of our age — really, the ideas and values imposed by the ruling class — into a clear picture of the world and the necessity to change it. Even through difficult conversations, we must patiently but firmly explain. In this case, we must shift the focus from Hamas to the uninterrupted violence of Israeli colonialism.

If Shalom, La Botz, and others want to do more than be labeled political police for the left, they should drop the bourgeois moralizing and join us in making that picture clear.

E. Reed
(he/him) is a founding member of the Boston Revolutionary Socialists and Firebrand. He has been involved with the revolutionary socialist left since 2011 and is a former member of the International Socialist Organization.

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