Ideology versus Regime Interest
The Palestinian Question in
Syrian-Lebanese Communism
Malek Abisaab
During the 1930s when Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine began to take a more intense form, the Syrian-Lebanese communists had to define their position with respect to it. The general outlook of the party suggest an incoherent and confused understanding of the nature of national resistance in Palestine, Zionism, and Arab-Israeli conflict. This situation was created by several complex historical factors pertaining to the position of the Soviet Union and its shifts in theory and policy in the Middle East. The Arab communists were uninformed about the last minute decisions made by the Soviets on the Palestine question and yet they took up the Soviet’s position without questioning its validity.
The position of the Syrian-Lebanese communist party on the Palestine question fell into three principal stages. The first stage extended from the 1930s until the 1947-48 Arab -Israeli war and the creation of Israel. The second stage extended from 1947-48 until 1955-56, when Syrian-Lebanese communists accepted the United Nations resolution of 1947 and the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The third stage falls after 1955-56, when Nasserite Arabism was in the ascendancy and when the Soviet communists began a Rapprochement with Arab nationalistic regimes. The Soviets, without necessarily denouncing the legitimacy of the state of Israel, began to support Arab national movements and Palestinian rights (even though some official declarations of the Soviets at the time have questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel). By the second conference of the Syrian-Lebanese communist party in 1968, communists made a fundamental shift in their Marxist conceptualization of the national question and called for an open self-criticism of the party’s stand on the Palestine question. Yet, at no point was there a comprehensive criticism of the decisions and policies of the Comintern or the Soviet Union on these issues. Rather, leaders of the Lebanese communist party attacked the Stalinist period and the Stalinist mentality as the source of past problems relating to the national question in Middle Eastern countries.
When the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the Allied forces in the 1914-18 war, new possibilities opened up for the Zionists to establish a homeland or state in Palestine. In 1915-16 Sir Mark Sykes for Britain and M. Charles Georges-Picot for France had, in fact, drafted an agreement in which, while undertaking to recognize and protect an independent Arab State or Confederation of Arab States, the two powers in effect carved the Middle East into spheres of influence pending the time of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Influential Zionists, notably Dr. Chaim Weizmann, saw an opportunity for pressing Britain for a commitment to provide a home for the Jews in Palestine. They secured the help of Judge Louis Brandeis, a leading United Sates Zionist and principal adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, hoping to bring the US into the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917. The U.S. entered the war for a variety of reasons, the most compelling of which was to ensure that the Allies won so that they could repay their debts. The outcome was the Balfour Declaration which was contained in a letter from Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothchild on behalf of the Zionist Federation, dated 2 Novemeber 1917. It stated:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the existing civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status of Jews in other countries.

The Balfour Declaration and the motives behind its issuing are still the center of debates. Although it may have been issued to curry favor with Jews in the U.S. and Russia, some historians like Beth Baron question the degree to which Jews in those countries had any real political influence as they were caught in a situation of deep racial and religious discrimination. Thus it is safe to conclude that rather than seeing the Declaration as a direct fulfillment of the Jewish will, countries like Britain and the U.S. had direct interest in seeing the Balfour vision realized and to solidify their ties to the Middle East region through the creation of national homeland for the Jews.
Under the auspices of the newly formed League of Nations, the San Remo conference decided on 24 April 1920 to give the mandate of Palestine to Britain. The terms of the mandate were approved by the United States, which was not a member of the League, before they were finally agreed upon by the League Council on 24 July 1922. The terms included a restatement of the Balfour Declaration and provided that “an appropriate Jewish agency” should be established to advise and cooperate with the Palestine administration in matters affecting the Jewish national home and to participate in the development of the country. This gave the Zionist Organization a special position because the mandate stipulated that it should be recognized as an influential force, if the mandatory authority thought it appropriate. The British forces had defeated Ottoman troops in several campaigns in Palestine and had already occupied the country before the mandate became official in September 1923.
The mandate given to Britain included Trans-Jordan, the territory east of the Jordan River and beyond Amman. Britain allotted Transjordan as an Emirate to Emir Abdullah in 1921 and with the grant of full independence in 1946 it became a kingdom.
The Arabs in Palestine bitterly opposed the Balfour Declaration and Jewish immigration to Palestine and called for the prohibition of land sales to Jews. Intermittent outbreaks of Arab violence took place, notably in 1922 and 1929, which brought Arabs into conflict with the mandatory government. In 1936 there was an effective six-month general national strike of the Arab population, followed by a large-scale rebellion, which lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939 a British Commission issued the Third White Paper, which stated that Britain would continue to develop the Jewish national home and proposed that only 75,000 more Jews should be admitted over five years and then Jewish immigration would cease. It also proposed that self-governing institutions should be set up at the end of the five years which would preserve the Arab Majority in the country and its legislature. The 75,000 figure for Jews to be admitted over five years was way below earlier figures and Zionist demands at the time.
After the war, the international community was emotionally won over by the Jewish cause due to the evidence of the horrifying Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews. Zionists pressed harder for more immigration of Jews into Palestine and demanded that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth “integrated into the new structure of the democratic world.” The British failed to stop the number of immigrants coming into Palestine and by 1946 the Jewish population reached 608,000 opposed to 56,000 at the time of the mandate. Further, the Jewish Agency had formed its own military organization, the Haganah, and had resorted to a policy of violence designed to thwart the Mandate. The UN General Assembly sent a special commission to Palestine to report on the situation, and its report, issued on 31 August 1947, proposed two plans: a majority plan for the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with economic union, and a minority plan for a federal state. The Assembly adopted the majority plan.
Theoretically at least, during the whole period of the Comintern existence, the position of the CPSU - and accordingly all the Arab Communist parties - was strictly anti-Zionist. Zionism was declared to be a reactionary imperialistic movement and the idea of a national homeland for the Jews was considered invalid. Thus the communist parties were actively involved in opposing Zionist plans. Toward such an end, the Palestinian communist party had strongly supported the Arab national movement during the 1936-39 revolt.
Still, it seems plausible to suggest that the Comintern had continued to refute the viability and legitimacy of a Jewish national home, from a classical Marxist viewpoint, and that such a stand was neither coherent nor solid. A recent study by Garay Menicucci highlights the pragmatic approach which the Soviet Union invested in foreign policy relations — one that does not necessarily stem from ideological considerations or sociialist internationalist orientation. Based on an analysis of the writings of Grigorii Kosack, a historian of the Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow — which was itself one of the centres of authority in “the Soviet history profession”, Menicucci shows that there were gaps in the ideological unity within the Soviet communist party during the 1920s and the 1930s with respect to questions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, the emigration of Soviet Jews to Palestine and the viability of traditional relations with Arab communist parties. Kosack argued that Palestine lacked a revolutionary intelligentsia which had adopted Marxism as part of its national liberation ideology. Nor, did he believe, was there even the “material base” in Arab Palestinian society for the adoption of communist ideology. Because of its ties with the peasantry, the Palestinian working class of the 1920s was seen as having “a petty bourgeois psychology” and possessing “religious and traditional prejudices.” In comparison Kosack found that the Jewish population was at the center of the development of capitalist production and at the center of the development of a bourgeoisie from one side and of a proletariat from the other.
Furthermore, there was no real ideological unity in the Soviet stand on the Palestine question, the prospects of establishing a communist party in the Third World, and the form of socio-economic base for the development of such a party in non-European conditions. It would be argued then, based on Kosack’s views, that the creation of a Jewish national homeland was not seen totally incompatible with “scientific socialism,” for the immigrant Jewish community was seen as carrying the socio-economic base needed for the establishment of a progressive working class whose interests would eventually join the internationalist movement. Elements of this view could be felt among the Syrian-Lebanese communists too, who like most Arab communists at the time had expected the Jewish working class to play a revolutionary anti-imperialist role based on its cultural ties with Europe and the Soviet Union.
During the Arab revolt (1936-1939), the Syrian-Lebanese communist party adhered to the slogan of “One Democratic Republic in Palestine” and called for ending British colonialist “terrorism” which they viewed as the central source of the conflict and demanded the fulfillment of the national rights of Arabs. In Sawt al-Sha’b, 17 August 1937, the Syrian-Lebanese communists declared, “The issue of who will dominate the other is not what really preoccupies the Arab and Jewish peoples but rather: the means to raise the flag of peace, tranquility, brotherhood and productive work in that miserable country.”
Later in September, 1937, the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party participated in the Bludan conference in Syria held by the Pan-Arab Congress and stated that their demands with respect to the Palestinian cause are that “all Arabs and honest democratic forces in the Arab world cannot but support the demands of the Palestinian people which are:

1- Total rejection of the Partition of Palestine.
2- Total stop to Jewish immigration.
3- Forbidding the selling of land.
4- Establishment of a constitutional system ensuring the spreading of peace and quietness in Palestine.

The Arab nationalists were dissatisfied with the communists approach toward the Palestinian question. In their nationalist-centered view, they attacked the Syrian-Lebanese communists’ insistence that there was a major difference between “the Jewish people” and “the Zionist movement” in Palestine and elsewhere. Even the above demands of communists in the Bludan conference were attacked for lacking any mention of the role of British colonialism and the need for ending the Mandate in Palestine. Furthermore, Pan-Arabists, whose trend of thought was reflected by Darwazah, found it difficult to understand how Syrian-Lebanese communists could denounce Zionism as a forerunner of impulsive capitalism, and yet call for Arab-Jewish brotherhood. Thus, it seems safe to conclude that as the Pan-Arab nationalist fervor was spreading among the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent, there was less tolerance for a sense of secularism and internationalist justice, which Arab communists of that region tried to safeguard against national fanaticism. This supports Beinin’s argument that the origins, causes and issues at stake in the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict, which occupied the communist parties, was shaped by entirely different “terms of reference” from those prevalent in their societies.
The involvement of Syrian and Lebanese communists in the intermittent riots which broke out in Palestine in the beginning of 1931 and in the later Palestinian revolt (1936-9) was limited. Madoyan’s account shows that that the Armenian communists in particular were involved in the revolt, on the side of the Arabs, It was true, as Beinin pointed out, that Syrian-Lebanese communists, like most other communists in the Arab world, had seen the Arab-Jewish conflict during the 1930s as a struggle between an indigenous population and a settler-colonial one. Yet, Syrian-Lebanese communists had ruled out any possible revolutionary elements in the Palestinian national movement since its leadership was made up of traditional feudal notables like al-Husayni. Communists had envisioned a movement which would be led by a radically different class, namely the working class.
During the 1940’s the local Arab communists put more emphasis on the role of British colonial existence and its destructive ends and paid less attention to the goals of Zionist groups in Palestine and the political interests of the Soviet Union. Syrian-Lebanese Marxists felt that British colonialism was the main agitator of the Arab-Jewish conflict and that if the British were removed proper conditions for a true collaboration between the Arab and Jewish working classes would arise. They argued that tensions between Arabs and Jews in Palestine were caused by the British imperialists as a divide-and-rule tactic to preserve Britain’s domination of that country. Beinin criticizes such a view stating that although some incidents supported it during the history of the Palestine mandate, “essentially it was a functional myth that allowed the Marxists to organize and act in the belief that there were no contradictions between the ‘real’ national interests of both peoples and that any apparent contradictions could be resolved by uniting against the common imperialist enemy.”
In keeping with one of the constant and unchanging attitudes of Syrian-Lebanese communists toward Zionism, Farajallah al-Helou wrote in Sawt al-Sha’b 13 and 14 August 1944 that Zionism was, “a colonialist movement whose economic goals are exporting capital to Palestine and neighboring countries and transforming them to a market for investment and selling of goods.”Al-Helou argued that Zionism was a “fifth column” for colonialism and opposes the liberation and independence goals of Arabs as it aims to create a firm and safe base of security for foreign colonial domination in Palestine and the neighboring region.
The Syrian and Lebanese communists issued a joint declaration 15 Novemeber, 1945 in which they stated that a proper resolution of the Arab question would be the elimination of the mandate in Palestine and fulfillment of its independence and national sovereignty. They called for the ending of “Zionist immigration” and allowing those who wished to return to their “liberated countries in Europe” (after the demise of Nazi Germany) among the Jews to do so. Furthermore, they called for the establishment of democratic rule which fulfills the rights of all citizens.
In another speech given by Khaled Bakdash, 1 May, 1946, in Damascus, the Syrian communist party (reflecting also the position of the Lebanese one), announced that the liberation of Palestine was “part and parcel of the cause of liberation and peace in the Arab East and the world.” He made it clear that communists: "are not the enemies of Jews but Zionism...whose goal in the west was creating conflict and division between Jewish laborers and other laborers of every region and thus fighting socialists. Its goal with respect to Palestine is cheating Jewish laborers and driving them to serve the strange goals ...[of]..British colonialism and Zionist capitalism which is fused with British and American capital."
In their relentless attempts to draw the line between a racist (‘irqi) war and a national-revolutionary war in Palestine, the Syrian and Lebanese communists issued a joint declaration 20 October, 1947 calling upon Arab democratic nationalists not to transform the struggle against “colonialism and Zionist occupation” into a racist Arab-Jewish struggle. On the other hand, the change in the Stalinist approach to the prospects of a Jewish state led many Marxists to have unrealistic expectations about the future international orientation of the Zionist movement. Guided by tactical considerations and confident in the correct leadership of the USSR, Middle Eastern Marxists, including Syrian-Lebanese communists, did not carefully consider the regional impact of the creation of a Jewish state. Their understanding of the situation was limited by the “linear and teleological Marxist vision” of the Comintern, which regarded anti-imperialist national liberation movements as inevitably allied to the progress of international socialism. The Syrian-Lebanese Marxists too, did not foresee that the creation of a Jewish state would legitimate a Zionist state structure with a pro-Western international orientation despite its conflict with Great Britain during WWII.
The decision of the Soviet Union to accept the partition plan and the theoretical justification given to this plan came as a surprise to the Syrian and Lebanese communists. Sawt al-Sha’b had included a translated passage from al-Azmina al-Haditha (Modern Times) — the Soviet magazine issued in Moscow — in which the Soviet Union had attacked the Anglo-American Committee which called for the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state. The Soviet report stated: “What are the legal foundations on which the British-American committee asked to discuss the Palestine cause was based? The Arab masses are angry at those attempts which aim at solving the Palestinian cause in the absence of Arabs.”
Thus early in May, Khaled Bakdash was still opposed to the partition plan, in adherence to the understood Soviet stand. On 14 May 1947, Andre Gromyko, the Soviet representative at the United Nations, announced that there exist “two nations: the Arab and the Jewish, with equal historical roots in the country.” He called for the initial establishment of one Arab-Jewish state in which both groups enjoy equal rights, but that if the relations did not improve between Jews and Arabs, the Soviets would consider the partition as a permanent solution.
The second Soviet delegate, Tsarapkin also stated that the latter solution would reflect the will of “the majority” due to the deterioration of Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine. The only two reasons given by the Soviet Union for its unprecedented acceptance of the creation of a Jewish state were first, the upholding of the principle of the right of self-determination for nations and second, the suffering of Jews during the rule of Nazi Germany, for which they ought to be compensated. Other undeclared reasons, of course, lie in Soviet foreign policy.
After the USSR recognized Israel de jure in May 1948, Israel could no more be depicted as an “illegal creation”. Here the Syrian and Lebanese communists quickly adopted the Soviet position not necessarily out of, “some ‘Diktat’ from Moscow, but by virtue of the weight of communist tradition, which did not allow deviations from the Soviet line.” Yet, it is important to note that communist Arabs in general could not use the same arguments which the Soviets advanced to support their change of policy. They now argued that the existing situation in the region and the balance of international forces made it possible for them to accept the partition of Palestine and create an independent democratic state in the Arab section. They declared that this would provide a favorable starting point for a future struggle to create “a federal socialist state in Palestine.” They also attacked the intervention of Arab regimes and their collaboration with British imperialism. In October of 1948 the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Syrian communist parties along with the National Liberation League of Palestine issued a joint communiqué condemning the Arab invasion of Palestine and supporting the partition. The communiqué declared that the Palestine war was a direct result of the fierce struggle between England and the United States and that this war revealed the betrayal by the reactionary rulers in the Arab states and their complete submission to foreign imperialism.
This was a problematic stand since no substantive critique of Zionist ideology or practice or even of Israel’s conduct of the war was made. The state of Israel was not mentioned and the partition was supported only in adherence to the position of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, there was no reference to an Israeli-Jewish nation or its right to self-determination, and no discussion of the failures of the Palestinian Arab national movement. Yet it is important to note that among the Arab communist parties, the Syrian was distinguished by its opposition to the partition of Palestine. The Syrian communists have historically been more severely opposed to Israel than other parties. Shortly thereafter, Khaled Bakdash, who was a loyal Sovietist, declared (based on a new theoretical justification) that the Jews are a nation and they have the right to live in Palestine.
The position of the Syrian and Lebanese communists on the partition plan, the creation of Israel, and other internal party problems weakened them as a party. These developments were accompanied by internal disagreements causing the desertion of some prominent members of the party. Bakdash’s autocratic nature was manifest in his consistent use of methods of humiliation and retribution of party members. His character and stagnant approach to Marxism were to have a drastic effect on the future of Syrian and Lebanese communist parties. In 1951, the Lebanese communists’ six parliamentary candidates all failed despite their strong local contacts. Likewise, in 1953, the party did not score significant victories.
During the following year the Syrian and Lebanese communist parties were further isolated by the rigid leadership of Khaled Bakdash. During November 1951, at the extended meeting of the Syrian communist party, Bakdash gave a report entitled “Toward the party of Laborers and Peasants. Toward Peace, Liberty and Independence.” Bakdash reiterated earlier views stating that the party’s central objectives for the coming period were ending the imperialist existence of, the hegemony of its agents in the country and, the feudal remnants, and fulfilling national and democratic liberties. The last demand did not focus on the Palestine question nor was there any clear plan concerning the means and modes for fighting feudalism and instituting a just redistribution of land. More problematic was Bakdash’s view that, lest the struggle of workers and peasants become isolated from the general national struggle - even if the workers and peasants are the most revolutionary — it was necessary to work toward the formation of a front joining together all national and democratic forces along with workers and peasants. This is in order to offer a better opportunity for the fulfillment of those goals, and to isolate the bourgeois forces which collaborate with imperialism, and to confront the remnants of feudalism and reactionism.
Bakdash had thus cast all political forces outside the party under one light, seeing all the bourgeois as pro-imperialists and feudalists as anti-national. Madoyan criticized this report in his book and designated it as ideological stagnation. Once again the party’s report did not discuss the threat of Israeli Zionism or the future of the Arab national liberation movement and the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile he faced several nervous attacks and his health continued to deteriorate from 1951 to 1952, when he was invited by the Soviets to stay in the USSR for rehabilitation.
The Soviet position with respect to Israel did not remain the same and grew more complex shortly thereafter. This position had been for the most part conditioned and affected by Israel’s growing affinity to the United States. After the creation of Israel, its government proved to be inimical to the Soviet Union. In 1955, and under the leadership of Nikita Kruschev, Soviet sympathy for Arab nationalism began to surface in Soviet publications even though this literature did not hint at a Soviet Partisanship against Israel. Kruschev announced in 1957 that the Jews did not truly have the elements that make a nation, while Bulganin, a Soviet representative, also argued that Israel s existence should be re-examined. The Syrian and Lebanese communists began to attack Israel and go along with the general stand of the Arab national liberation movement. Still, the pan-Arabists found the communists’ position unacceptable since they “never called for the obliteration of Israel.” In a lengthy interview Khaled Bakdash explained that the communists in Syria and Lebanon have “always opposed and exposed Israel’s claim to be a democratic and peace-loving country...Israel is an imperialist base and a tool against the Arab liberation movement. We have always found complete understanding on the subject in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and the other socialist countries.”
As Beinin reflected, it was not true that the Soviet Union had “always” endorsed this analysis concerning Israel. However, Bakdash was the senior leader among Arab communists and had a strong position among the Soviets. His opinions carried great weight and had even influenced the Egyptian communists toward revising their position toward Israel.
The first joint Soviet-Arab declarations which championed “the lawful rights of the Arabs of Palestine” was the joint communiqué signed by Kruschev and Nasser in May 1958. The growth of pan-Arabism played a major role in shaping the ideologies and programs of local communists on the one hand and the Soviet political alliances in the Middle East on the other. Ironically, the Soviets had chosen to maintain close relations with Middle Eastern governments which had persecuted and executed hundreds of local communists.
In conclusion, with respect to the Palestine question, the Syrian and Lebanese communists blindly adopted the stand of the Soviet Union, whose decisions had the most crucial impact on theirs. During the 1947-48 period, the Syrian-Lebanese communists overemphasized the danger of British colonialism while deemphasizing the character of Zionism and the growing influence of the United States. The Syrian-Lebanese communists also committed the error of focusing exclusively on the reactionary character of Arab nationalism without weighing some of its progressive or revolutionary elements. Similar generalizations made by Beinin concerning Egyptian and Palestinian communists could be made with regard to Syrian and Lebanese communists. The creation of the state of Israel embodied a double failure for the communists: in the struggle against Zionism and in the implementation of the UN resolution. The Soviet Union held the belief that the creation of Israel would hasten the departure of the British from Arab Middle Eastern countries and made the Zionist movement emerge “by default as the leading anti-imperialist force in the Middle East.”
The climax of the colonialist drive in the Fertile Crescent was the establishment and legitimization of the Zionist entity (Israel): a racist colonial-settler entity organically and functionally attached to the imperialist powers. The Soviet Union accepted the U.N.-sponsored Partition Plan of 1947, thus accepting the material manifestation of the Zionist/imperialist project in the Arab region. Subsequently, almost all Arab Communist Parties accepted what the Soviets agreed to without any critical objection! Moreover, there are reports that the Syrian Communist Party, (the most mature of the Arab Communist Parties at the time), having printed its paper with headlines in objection to the proposed Partition Plan, had to throw all that batch in the garbage and print another edition with a reverse position after the Soviet agreement to the plan! From that point on, Arab Communist Parties had to become a sort of “devil’s advocate,” defending the existence of “Israel,” and fabricating/promoting all sorts of theories about a “unity of the Arab and Jewish working class” in Palestine. That was and remains a theoretical joke that demanded the unity of the oppressed and occupied with their colonial-settler occupiers and oppressors under the banner of “working-class unity” against imperialism!!