Was the Red Flag Flying There?

Review of Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab Israeli-Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965, by Joel Beinin. 317 pp,. London: I.B. Tauris, 1990.

Avi Shlaim

British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, September 1992.

The story of Marxist parties on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide is largely the story of disorientation, disintegration, fragmentation and progressive marginalization.  A study of how these parties viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict and its possible resolution may thereon appear at first sight as an academic exercise of very limited value.  But in Joel Beinin these parties have found a scholar who is not only sympathetic but immensely knowledgeable and penetrating.  His book is a comparative study of communist and other left wing parties that were active in Egypt and Israel from 1948 to 1965.  His aim is to re-examine the Arab-Israeli conflict through the lens of Marxist politics and his analysis is deeply influenced by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and especially his conception of hegemony.  Beinin's study builds on the work published by revisionist Israeli historians in recent years, and he extends the revision of the conventional wisdom on the reasons behind the deadlock in Arab-Israeli relations into the 1950s and early 1960s with an epilogue on the period since 1967.

    Comparative political research on the Middle East which includes Israel is uncommon not least because of Israel's alleged uniqueness.  Beinin notes in his introduction that to treat Egypt and Israel in the same analytical framework may seem odd because at first glance their political systems, cultures and historical trajectories are so different.  His justification for doing so is that 'the processes by which nationalist ideologies became the hegemonic political discourse in the two countries were both similar and dialectically related ' (p.6).

    Beinin's great strength is that he reads both Arabic and Hebrew and is able to draw on an impressive range of primary sources and to place the activities of the Marxist parties in Egypt and Israel in their broader political context.  He provides a rich and illuminating account of the process by which these parties, which in 1947-49 were closest to the international consensus in advocating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, were overwhelmed by what Beinin calls the 'hegemonic nationalist political discourse' in both countries.  The fusion of the communist and the Zionist movements was made possible in 1947 because the Soviet Union supported the partition of Palestine and saw Zionism as an anti-imperialist force.  But in the 1950s it was Ben-Gurion's aggressive and activist Zionism which shaped the political culture of the new state.  Similarly, in the aftermath of the Suez war, it was Nasser's brand of pan-Arab nationalism which set the agenda in Egyptian and inter-Arab politics, relegating the Marxist forces to the sidelines.

    Beinin's explanation of the failure of the Marxist parties to gain support for their view of the Arab-Israeli conflict within their respective countries is two-fold.  First, in the realm of ideas, Marxist theory was incapable of explaining the power of nationalism, whether Arab or Israeli.  Second, and more important, is the political weakness of the social forces on which the Marxist parties in both countries  were based.  The Gramscian strategy for combating the hegemony of the ruling class is to create a counterhegemonic bloc consisting of the working class, but the creation of such a bloc was not possible in either Egypt or Israel.  In the period since 1967, while the political power of the Marxist parties continued to wane, the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which they had favoured all along began to gain credibility.  These parties can claim a moral victory, yet, as Beinin observes, this victory is not unproblematic since the main arguments advanced in support of the two-state solution are pragmatic and national.

    While the questions raised in this book are not new, the approach is innovative, the analysis is cogent, and some of the new material is fascinating.  The book makes a valuable contribution to the literature on the Arab-Israeli conflict and, more generally, on the role of left wing forces in the politics of the Middle East.