On Finkelstein, the BDS, one-state solutions & the problem with Gandhi’s strategy

by · February 17, 2012

Palestinians cross over the Syrian-Israeli border, May 2011

I’ve had a chance to look at Norman Finkelstein’s recent controversial statements about Left strategy over the question of the BDS. Finkelstein, a brilliant critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, has for some time been highly critical of the international BDS campaign, in particular because he believes it implicitly calls for the end of Israel (a “one-state solution” in the parlance).

Over at Lenin’s Tomb, Richard Seymour has rebutted the general outline of Finkelstein’s arguments, but I thought I’d repost some comments I’d made in a Facebook exchange last month about the connections between this position and an insufficiently critical approach to Gandhi’s strategic thinking. Never one to do things by halves, Finkelstein powered his way through dozens of volumes of Gandhi’s collected works to summarise the Indian independence leader’s oeuvre, and delivered a lecture about it in 2008, the text of which can be found here. Apparently he has replayed these arguments in his latest book, This Time They Went Too Far, and it was Max Ajl’s response to this that piqued my interest in the Gandhi connection, which I’d heard Finkelstein speak about in broad-brush strokes previously. I’ve written on the fetishisation of “non-violence” (and Gandhi) previously at Left Flank, here.

My response to the 2008 speech on Gandhi was as follows:

What is the social content of Finkelstein’s argument about Gandhi on movement strategy? Actually, he obscures it by avoiding serious discussion of the context and social forces (from above & from below) involved in either conflict, or — more properly — he reduces them to a bourgeois nationalist configuration with great reliance on the brilliant strategy and doggedness of non-violent leaders and cadre. Gandhi’s arguments carry a deep strain of liberal moralism in them, which Finkelstein seems uncomfortable with but has no alternative to.

Therefore he can argue that, whatever faults there were in Gandhi’s position, it lay at the centre of the success of the Indian movement. This collapses the myriad of social forces that did not use Gandhi’s tactics as part of the massive struggles that won decolonisation. There is very little discussion of how Gandhi’s ideas played out in practice because the historical record shows that Gandhi’s strategic views represented only one part of the actual movement. The final result, too, was limited to a national solution and a terrible partition (which of course Gandhi didn’t want but had no viable strategy to stop).

Secondly, the historical context and nature of the Palestinian struggle today is radically different. Finkelstein makes little effort to draw convincing analogies. However, like Gandhi he puts the class struggle second (or lower) down the priority list because he envisions it in what can only be called a pretty straightforward question of national rights. This cuts his argument off from questions of class struggle across the region (not to mention the West).

Therefore, worst of all, his is almost entirely an argument about influencing international ruling class opinion. He doesn’t seriously consider either the limits of this amorphous “public opinion” he talks about in pressuring governments, and neither does he provide a serious explanation of how that could change in building international solidarity movements. This becomes most repellent in his complete lack of discussion of the possibility of renewed Arab movements from below reshaping the balance of forces in a way that doesn’t simply rely on “public opinion”. In this he shadows the mistake made by many one-state advocates, of seeing the issue as an Israel-Palestine conflict that must find some resolution in that isolated binary. Perhaps even in 2008 it seemed that the idea that the road to Palestinian liberation ran through the main street of Cairo and not Jerusalem was nowhere close, but that didn’t stop people like Tony Cliff or the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists arguing for it — based on a careful analysis of the constellation of forces.

I can totally agree that revolutionaries must start by mobilising around things people already believe. That’s a simple materialist proposition. But the extension of a materialist analysis is to look at the limits and potentialities of where one starts. I think the rapidly changing situation in the MENA region indicates that Finkelstein’s call for a non-violent strategy linked to a position held verbally by most of the international ruling class actually limits itself to demands that leave Palestinians stuck in the same two-state merry go round that the “international community” endorses but never acts on. His argument strengthens a “consensus” that has been used to repeatedly derail the struggle. Simply put, the question cannot be justly solved in bourgeois nationalist terms.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that non-violent tactics have no place in this struggle, or any other, but here they (wittingly or not) reveal the political (rather than simply strategic) weaknesses of Finkelstein’s position.

The importance of this is to say that not all movement strategies lead to the same result. The means by which movements decide to try to defeat oppression can radically constrain (or open up) the ends that can be achieved. Finkelstein’s take on Gandhian strategy limits the struggle to a narrow national outcome that seeks to avoid seriously disrupting hegemonic systems of control in the Middle East (ones in which a Zionist Israeli state is a central prop). I think it is simply untenable to assert that the non-violent mobilisation of four million Palestinians alone would be enough to defeat the most powerful military power in the region. Rather, the key to justice for Palestinians requires looking beyond this to the wider Arab working class, who can take on not just Israel but the matrix of Arab ruling elites that also buttresses the existing order.

Ironically, Finkelstein has ramped up the shrillness of his criticisms of the BDS just as the current situation in the region has become one where mass resistance and ruling class instability have rapidly spread across borders, threatening the break-up of the entire system of control that has dominated for more than 40 years. Last May’s border protests, which Time called “the Arab Spring model for confronting Israel”, were just one manifestation of this. In such a situation, to tailor demands to win over the powerful actors who have maintained these regimes of domination is not just abstractly problematic, but today trails behind the potential being opened up by ordinary Arab people themselves.