Long Read | Land and existence in Gaza

Connecting the work of Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani with Karl Marx’s thought, the national and land question in Gaza is one of existence, and a matter of life and death.

During Israel’s brutal 11-day assault on Gaza – itself only an escalation of its daily devastation of Palestinian life – I turned to the writings of the Palestinian novelist and militant Ghassan Kanafani. In his short story Letter from Gaza, the narrator writes to his friend in California, where he has been accepted for an engineering degree. He remembers when Gaza was attacked in 1948 by the forces that would become the state of Israel, and how much he wanted to leave Gaza behind, to liberate himself from defeat. Yet something blunted his “enthusiasm for flight”.

Before he leaves for good, he goes to the hospital to visit his 13-year old niece, Nadia, who belongs to the “generation which had been so brought up on defeat and displacement that it had come to think that a happy life was a kind of social deviation”. Her leg has been amputated; she lost it after throwing herself on top of her brothers and sisters to protect them from the bombs. She could have saved herself, run away, but she didn’t. And now he too will never leave. 

He tells his friend: “This obscure feeling that you had as you left Gaza, this small feeling must grow into a giant deep within you. It must expand, you must seek it in order to find yourself, here among the ugly debris of defeat. I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.”

I was reminded, after reading these lines, of the words of Karl Marx a century earlier, in a speech in London in December 1867, and a letter to comrades in New York in 1870, both on “the Irish question”. A report on Marx’s speech records him saying that the Irish question was “not simply a question of nationality, but a question of land and existence”. In his letter, he wrote that “in Ireland the land question has been up to now the exclusive form of the social question because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority of the Irish people, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question”.

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In other words, there is a fundamental relation between land and nation and life and existence. What Marx called the national question was a way of thinking through this relation. In his entry on the national question in the forthcoming Handbook of Marxism, Gavin Walker points out that Marx wrote at a time when nations were in radical flux – their territorial borders were being constantly redrawn, languages were constituting national majorities and minorities, and imperialism was producing a global hierarchical ordering. It was clear to Marx, then, that there was a kind of volatility to the category of the nation: it was the site of contestation which could move in both reactionary and emancipatory directions.

In a historical study of the period from 1936 to 1939, Kanafani presented a Marxist analysis of the national question in Palestine. It was framed by the relations between the reactionary local leadership, the surrounding Arab regimes, and the alliance between British imperialism and Zionism. For Palestinians under siege by this alliance the national question took priority over social questions, while at the same time the antagonism between imperialism and the feudal-religious leadership led to the ruling class supporting a certain level of revolutionary struggle.

Capitalist development took place unevenly, and at Palestinian expense. The Zionist-imperialist alliance in this period, Kanafani wrote, not only led to the institutionalisation of colonial violence and the defeat of the Palestinian working class, it also “successfully undermined the development of a progressive Jewish labour movement and of Jewish-Arab Proletarian brotherhood”.

Kanafani’s research was cut short by a car bomb planted by the Mossad in 1972, so we have to look at his fiction to fill out more of the story. In The Land of Sad Oranges the narrator remembers his family fleeing Palestine in 1948, refugees like hundreds of thousands of others. He was too young to understand at first what was happening, but it became clearer as he watched the adults in his family burst into tears at the sight of oranges. 

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He recalls when they are stopped by the police, who are collecting the weapons of the refugees: “As our turn came and I saw the rifles and machine guns lying on the table and looked towards the long line of lorries entering Lebanon, rounding the bends in the roads and putting more and more distance between themselves and the land of the oranges, I too burst into a storm of weeping.”

Some orange groves were destroyed, and others were seized by the Israeli state. This symbol of the Palestinian homeland became a symbol of dispossession, before becoming a symbol of the state of Israel. The uprooting of trees is not only one of the most potent symbols of Palestinian disposession, but also one of its most damaging effects. It is estimated that 2.5 million fruit trees have been uprooted since 1967 to build Israeli settlements.

We can see why Marx described the national question as a question of land and existence, and this holds true in Palestine. Palestinian agriculture is undermined by the continued land seizures and expansion of Israeli settlements, the dumping of domestic and industrial waste from these settlements on to Palestinian land, restrictions on importing agricultural inputs alongside dependence on imported Israeli goods for household consumption, the control of the Israeli state over water and electricity, and the destruction of the transportation infrastructure by Israel’s bombs.

According to Haaretz, 97% of Gaza’s drinking water was already unfit for human consumption owing to sewage contamination or high salinity levels. The recent bombing has destroyed sewage systems and shut down a major desalination plant. The UN reported in 2020 that Gaza has “the world’s highest unemployment rate, and more than half of its population lives below the poverty line”. The recent bombing displaced more than 100 000 residents of Gaza from their homes.

4 January 2001: Palestinian school children sit by a wall painting featuring Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, killed in 1972 by Israelis, in the Dheisheh refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. (Photograph by Yannis Behrakis/ Gallo Images)

It should be quite clear that the economic character of Palestinian oppression is inextricable from its national character. We could engage in an objective social analysis of Israeli colonialism and its support by American imperialism, which would show the structuring role of global capitalist accumulation. But this should not obscure the relatively autonomous character of national oppression.

The atrocities carried out by Israel are a form of terrorism that intends to torture, intimidate and humiliate Palestinians, precisely because they are Palestinians; and the ongoing occupation has a nihilistic logic, that destroys and pollutes the land and threatens the very existence of Palestinian workers, who Israel seeks not only to exploit but to annihilate, because they are Palestinians. It is the attempt at the total destruction of any semblance of control Palestinians might exert over land and existence.

These themes were powerfully present in Marx’s analysis of the national question. We have to note that for Marx the national question was in no way separate from or secondary to questions which are supposedly purely economic. In fact, Marx had just presented his systematic critique of political economy in the first volume of Capital a few months earlier, and became utterly preoccupied with the Irish question, certainly in his research but also in his political interventions.

He ceaselessly argued against the influences of colonialism in the International, and worked on campaigns in defence of Irish political prisoners after the Fenian Rising, the abortive attempt at an armed insurrection against English rule that had happened in Ireland three years earlier. In their private correspondence Marx and Engels criticised the Fenians for the incoherence of their political ideology and the reckless and destructive character of their bombings. But they never made such criticisms in public, for reasons that Marx made clear in his writings on the Irish question.

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The conditions imposed on Ireland, which Marx recounted at length in Capital and in his subsequent speeches and letters, are quite familiar: eviction, dispossession, displacement, expulsion from the land, low wages, unemployment, starvation. This was the economic character of the national question. But he also kept insisting on its fundamentally political character. He wrote to Engels in 1869 that while he had previously believed that the ascendancy of the English working class would make it possible to overthrow colonial rule in Ireland, more intensive research had brought him around to the opposite view.

He now concluded that Irish independence was in “the direct and absolute interest of the English working class”, and without it they would “never accomplish anything”: “The lever must be applied in Ireland.” Employing another mechanical image in 1870, he described Ireland as England’s “weakest point” – a language which anticipates later theories of the Russian Revolution as the “weak link in the imperialist chain”.

The first reason for this was that the domination of the English ruling classes over Ireland maintained not only their wealth but also their domination in England itself. If the English army and police were withdrawn from Ireland, there would immediately be an agrarian revolution, which would lead to the downfall of the landed aristocracy in England.

English capitalists benefitted from the influx of cheap meat and wool into the English market, and had an interest in reducing the Irish population through eviction and forcible emigration so it could invest in land there with “security”. The surplus sent from Ireland to England, furthermore, forced down the wages of English workers.

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But “most important of all!”, Marx wrote, was that the working class in England had been divided into “two hostile camps”. English workers viewed the Irish as competitors who lowered their standard of living; they regarded themselves as members of the ruling nation, becoming tools of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and strengthening their domination over themselves. Marx compared the religious, social and national prejudices of English workers to the racism of “poor whites” in the United States.

Irish workers, on the other hand, saw the English workers as the accomplices of English rule in Ireland, and this antagonism was “artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers” – in other words, by what have since been described as the ideological state apparatuses. 

He wrote: “This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.” The most important task of the International was to bring about a social revolution in England, because it was “the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity”.

But the only way of bringing this about was to achieve Irish independence. So it was “the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland”, in order “to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation”.

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I would like to observe that Marx makes two arguments for the universal character of Irish emancipation, in the objective and the subjective registers. First, he presents an objective social analysis which rests on the premise that the most mature level of capitalist development provides the material conditions for revolution. Yet the evolution of the objective material process is not linear, because it is not the contradiction between capital and labour that initiates the social revolution, but the contradiction between colonialism and national independence.

The objective analysis of colonialism shows not only that there is a non-linear process, but also that what appears to be the general contradiction does not exist in a pure state. The conditions for revolution are actually an accumulation of contradictions, which fuse together in such a way as to make a revolutionary rupture possible.

This means that these specific historically concrete forms and circumstances are the site of subjective intervention, which is how I read Marx’s analysis of the antagonism internal to the working class. One might read this as a version of a theory of the objective relation between race and class, or racism and capitalism. This is certainly an interesting question. But what is just as significant is that Marx seeks here to describe why the working class is impotent, powerless, despite its organisation. In other words, it is possible for the working class to be organised, and to be organised by organisations of class struggle within the most mature material conditions for revolution, and still not constitute a revolutionary subject.

The revolutionary subject did not already exist; it was not simply the working class, as an objective sociological category. It had to be constructed politically, and this meant that the national question was the political condition of the revolutionary subject. This political condition, however, offers a hint of the struggle’s universal character even beyond its direct import to the class struggle in England.

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Of course, Marx’s historically specific analyses of English colonialism in Ireland and the composition of the working class cannot simply be transposed on to every kind of occupation and every form of identitarian division. He saw that in his conjuncture it was necessary to overcome the mutual hostilities and suspicions between sections of the toiling masses, and to bring about a disidentification with the dominant nation, which required a strongly held and broadly felt commitment to anti-colonial emancipation. But this was based on a concrete analysis of the concrete situation, which is precisely what has to be done for the present.

We do not need to determine in advance that Palestine is the weakest point in global capitalism, that its liberation would be the lever of a global revolution, or that the antagonism between Palestinians and Israelis is the secret of working-class impotence and capitalist power to grasp the universality of the Palestinian cause. The ongoing relevance of Marx’s engagement is in the affirmation of emancipatory politics within the national question.

The importance of this affirmation is clear when we consider that even before the recent round of bombings, the UN human rights chief said that residents of Gaza were “caged in a toxic slum from birth to death, deprived of dignity; dehumanised by the Israeli authorities to such a point it appears officials do not even consider that these men and women have a right, as well as every reason, to protest”.

In fact, this points to a tension in Marx’s conception of the revolutionary process, illustrated in the relation between the maturity of material conditions and the weakest point. In Marx’s analysis the highest level of capitalist development actually generated a situation in which the national liberation struggle took priority over the class struggle. National independence itself became a political condition of revolution.

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Marx’s logic of the weakest point shows that the revolutionary process is not predetermined, and his analysis of the national question shows that it has an irreducibly political dimension. What this means is that there will not be one struggle, but also that there is a universal character to these struggles. Marx points to this when he argues that national emancipation is a condition of social emancipation. But if we maintain that the revolutionary process does not follow a predetermined course, and that it has political conditions, then the universality of a struggle is not determined by whether it is the lever of the revolution, because in different situations there will be different levers.

These struggles are universal because of their emancipatory character itself: because they advance principles of justice which go beyond their local situations and apply to everyone. These principles, even though they emerge from a local situation, are antagonistic to the whole system which generates and regenerates domination and exploitation, and any emancipatory struggle must proceed to the destruction of this system and the invention of new, rational and egalitarian forms of life. 

This is not an abstract justice or humanitarianism which would look at a colonial situation and plead for an end to hatred and fighting, a kind of humanist variation of the common formulations of the mainstream media which attribute Palestinian deaths to “conflict” rather than to the Israeli army. In this colonial situation, the struggle for universal emancipation is necessarily the struggle for Palestinian self-determination.

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In his last interview, Kanafani said that it was precisely the universal dimension of the Palestinian situation he sought to represent: “There isn’t an event in the world that is not represented in the Palestinian tragedy. And when I depict the suffering of the Palestinians, I am in fact exploring the Palestinian as a symbol of misery in the entire world.”

But as Letter from Gaza shows, it was not only the suffering of Palestinians that he depicted. It was also that defiant commitment to life and existence, the refusal to leave. As the narrator leaves his niece in the hospital, her courage and sacrifice transforms him. The Gaza of defeat and displacement became “something new. It seemed to me just a beginning.” 

Let us, too, allow the defiance and persistence of the Palestinian people to transform us. This is the way that politics begins.

This article was first published in Viewpoint Magazine.

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