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Criticisms and conditions in support for Palestinian resistance

A reply to Tempest

Tom Dale responds to the Tempest editorial “Toward a free Palestine” and argues for clarifying what socialists mean by “unconditional but critical support” for national liberation struggles.

A recent Tempest editorial summmarizes the publication’s position on several matters arising from the present Israel-Gaza war. In doing so, it gives central place to a specific theoretical construct: “unconditional but critical support.”

“The method of unconditional but not uncritical support for national liberation struggles is not just old leftist language to be lightly discarded but is foundational to a Marxist method,” the editors write.

The phrase seems to have been first used in 1972 by the International Socialists (IS), forerunner to the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), as part of its position on the use of “terrorist” tactics by the Provisional and Official Irish Republican Army organizations (IRAs). Since then, it has been used from time to time by various splinters of the IS tradition, but rarely elsewhere. What does it mean? Often, that meaning has been unclear, and it has appeared to change over time.

It is worth distinguishing three possible senses of the phrase, which distinguish different attitudes to causes, organizations, and tactics.

1. Socialists support national liberation causes, even though we might oppose particular organizations that fight for those causes and certain tactics used in those struggles. We criticize those organizations and tactics when we oppose them.

2. Socialists support national liberation causes and the organizations that fight for those causes, even though we might oppose particular tactics used in those struggles. We criticize not only the tactics we oppose, but also the national liberation organizations, on grounds both of their tactics and broad political approach, including their ideas on matters not directly related to the struggle.

3. Socialists support national liberation causes, the organizations that fight for those causes, and the tactics employed in the course of those struggles. We criticize the organizations on the grounds of their broad political approach and the tactics on grounds of their strategic or tactical efficacy, even as we support both.

More permutations are possible. It would be possible to formulate a version of each in which tactics were criticized on grounds additional to, or other than, their efficacy. It would be possible to distinguish, after Hal Draper, between military and political support for certain organizations, though, as Draper acknowledged, in practice the boundary between the two is often permeable. It is possible to substitute a “neither support nor oppose” position for any given case of opposition or support. What exactly is criticized or opposed, and in what terms, also matters. But these three positions give us the basic structure from which those variations depart. (There are some fringe circumstances in which socialists might not support movements for national independence, but let’s leave those cases aside for now.)

A brief history of unconditional but critical support

Position 1 would be the least controversial in mass society in the West. Depending on its specific content, it could open up general opposition to Hamas and, for instance, the wilful attacks on civilians on October 7 last year, while holding on to steadfast support for the Palestinian national struggle as such. It does not seem to have been advanced theoretically by the IS or its successors, but justifications of the formulation are sometimes offered in terms that, in their content, justify only this position, perhaps because it is the most obviously appealing.

For instance, looking back in 2020 on The Troubles connected with the British occupation of Northern Ireland, Pat Stack of RS21 wrote that “our stance was unconditional, we did not weigh up every statement, every bombing, every tactical disaster to decide which side we were on. Yes, we reserved the right to be highly critical of republicanism, its strategy, its all-class nationalism, and at times its ill-judged, disastrous and heart-breaking military actions, but between the oppressor and the oppressed, we knew where we stood.” In this formulation, it is as if the question was merely one of whether to oppose British oppression in Northern Ireland and support the general idea of opposition to it. “[I]t was about saying I will stand against injustice, legal repression, and cover-ups of army atrocities,” Stack concludes.

But, as initially formulated in 1972, the IS position was 2. Duncan Hallas and Jim Higgins, for the majority of the organization’s Executive Committee, defended a line in a Socialist Worker editorial holding that the “killing of individual politicians and the bombing of buildings cannot be supported by socialists.” Hallas and Higgins went further than merely withholding support, however. “It is the clear duty of Marxists to oppose such tactics,” they wrote.

(Part of their position was that Northern Ireland was not in a state of civil war. One could better argue that in Israel and Palestine there is such a war. But for Hallas and Higgins the point of the distinction was that in a civil war, “attacks on individuals, destruction of buildings and so on would be part of attempts to defeat the army by military means.” On October 7, to the extent that we have evidence from footage, the killing of civilians that took place was largely not collateral to some strategic military objective. So, whatever the truth of the civil war question, it has no relevance to us here.)

They concluded with lines from the Socialist Worker editorial: “Unconditional but critical support for all those, including both IRAs, fighting imperialism in Ireland. By unconditional we mean support regardless of our criticism of the leadership and tactics. By critical we mean opposing the sowing of illusions that the struggle can finally be won except by the victory of the working class fighting on a programme of social as well as national liberation.”

Large square outdoor mural on a brick building. The image is mostly black-and-white, showing civilians carrying a bloody and wounded comrade. A figure with an automatic rifle, a gas mask, and an arm patch of the Union Jack, looks on. This soldier is trampling a bloodied banner that reads, “CIVIL RIGHTS ASSOCIATION.”
Mural of Bloody Sunday in Derry. On January 30, 1972, British troops shot 26 unarmed demonstrators in occupied Derry, Northern Ireland. The mural, photographed in 2010, is based on a photo. Image by Nina Stössinger.

Even during the 1970s, however, the formulation was confusing enough that many members of the IS and its sister organization in Ireland, the Socialist Worker Movement, had different and incompatible interpretations of its meaning. One Irish socialist recalled that “most members weren’t entirely sure” what it meant, and had a variety of clashing ideas subsumed under the same slogan. Meanwhile, “in the British SWP ‘unconditional but critical’ ranged from meaning uncritical support for the IRA, to not supporting them at all.”

On the account of a Trotskyist from an opposing tendency, in practice the IS tended not to make much use of the formulation in its public propaganda or to respond to the events of the Troubles through a consistent theoretical lens of any sort. Rather, IS modulated their tone based on the mood of their audience. Hence, an October 1974 Socialist Worker editorial advised readers to respond to those “hysterical” about IRA bombings by arguing for troops to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland. Until then, the most deadly attacks on civilians had been in Northern Ireland itself. But when, the next month, 21 people were killed in attacks on two Birmingham pubs, the paper ran the headline “Stop the Bombings,” a demand presumably directed at the armed republican movement. Nonetheless, as late as 2006, the SWP still seemed to theoretically take the second position.

In an essay for the International Socialism journal, Gareth Jenkins defended Hallas’s and Higgins’s analysis, describing Al-Qaeda, absurdly, as fundamentally “no different from other national liberation movements” (in reality it has never been a national liberation movement of any sort), but opposed terrorist tactics as representing “the politics of despair.”According to Trotskyists of an opposing tendency, however, the SWP members had refused to condemn the 9/11 attack itself for several months. Four years later, after the 2005 London tube bombings, and in an echo of their 1974 tonal shift, the slogan “Stop the Bombings” was deployed immediately, albeit less prominently than before. Across 30 years the tendency appeared to have retained the idea that while terrorism against civilians overseas was neither to be endorsed nor criticized too sharply, attacks on the British mainland demanded urgent opposition. Still a more fundamental political shift was gestating.

Over the past decade the SWP seems to have moved toward the third position. In 2014, they republished a blog by Mostafa Omar, a member of their Egyptian sister organization, The Revolutionary Socialists. Omar, writing in the context of an ongoing Israeli war on Gaza that ultimately killed more than 2,250 people, of whom two-thirds were civilians, stated that

[W]e unconditionally support Hamas when it is engaged in military or non-military struggles against Israel, because it weakens the Zionist state and terrifies the Arab regimes and the United States, and therefore strengthens the potential for class struggle in the Arab states against this imperialist system.

Our unconditional support for Hamas is not uncritical, however, because we believe that the movement’s strategies in the struggle to liberate Palestine—like the strategies adopted by Fatah and the Palestinian left before it—have failed and will fail in the future.

Omar has two specific criticisms of Hamas’s strategy: that it ties itself to “reactionary” regimes in the region that repress both their own people and the Palestinian struggle, and “despite the extraordinary heroism of Hamas’ fighters … Hamas adopts an elitist approach to dealing with the Palestinian masses.” He does not criticize any tactics Hamas deployed against Israel or Israelis.

On the contrary, Omar proposed support for Hamas “when it is engaged in military or non-military struggles” because they “weaken the Zionist state,” a formulation that could be read to imply—if it does not unambiguously state—support for tactics such as deliberate attacks on civilians. Although Hamas had abandoned suicide bombings at that point, the group had never disavowed the tactic in principle. Such attacks were its defining tactical motif between 1993 and 2008. Indeed, in 2016, the organization praised such an attack. For Hallas and Higgins, writing in 1972, terrorist tactics should be opposed as counterproductive. But by 2014, that perspective seems to have vanished. On the contrary, the implication was that they might be broadly helpful, though other, separate criticisms of Hamas’s strategy could be made. For all that Hamas’s approach is “elitist,” Omar does not suggest that elitism is a necessary corollary of any particular sorts of military or terrorist tactics as such.

Nearly a decade later, the ambiguity that marked Omar’s intervention has evaporated. On October 9, 2023, Socialist Worker called on readers to “rejoice” at the attacks inside Israel launched two days earlier, a word that betrayed a total failure to empathize not only with Israeli civilians, but with the Palestinians of Gaza who had already been pushed into a new kind of hell. A week on from the war’s beginning, the paper expressly supported “any means necessary” as part of their “unconditional but not uncritical” position. The bulk of that article is concerned with an argument by analogy: that violence against white civilians by the Mau Mau in Kenya and National Liberation Front in Algeria was “justified,” and therefore so was violence against civilians on October 7. These analogies are dubious, although there is no room to set out that critique here. For now, the important thing to recognize is that the SWP has adopted a version of position 3, albeit under the rubric of the same phrase that they previously used to defend position 2.

But theirs is a particularly extreme version of position 3. In principle, the third position allows for the criticism of tactics such as the purposeful killing of civilians, but while they describe their position as “not uncritical”—an awkward double negative that hints at discomfort even with mere criticism—the SWP offers no criticisms whatsoever of deliberate attacks on civilians. The only criticisms are of Hamas’s broad political program as it pertains to class, gender, and LGBT+ questions. The tactics deployed were “wholly justified,” the SWP asserted, even when that meant the murder of migrant workers.

To the extent the SWP position has a theoretical basis, it is the idea that Israel has a “pure” settler-colonial character that materially involves its Jewish population in a commitment to ethnic superiority, or even a “logic of elimination,” vis-à-vis Palestinians. Thus, they are not available for solidarity and an appeal to them on any terms but force is useless. The SWP and its Irish affiliate made a very similar argument about “Protestant privilege” in Northern Ireland, however, which raises the question of why the political conclusions that followed were so different. A full critique of this position will have to be taken up elsewhere. But for now, it is enough to note that the conclusion arising from the strong form of this argument is impossible to sustain. No accumulation of military violence can overwhelm Israel, not from the surrounding states (it has nuclear weapons) and certainly not from Palestinian militias. Therefore, inevitably, Palestinian strategy relies on an appeal to other forces—some combination of Jewish Israelis and publics in the West. The question is therefore what tactics support that strategy.

That doesn’t necessarily mean no violence. But it can’t mean deliberate, unlimited violence against civilians. The idea that half of Americans under 35 consider the violence against civilians on October 7 “justified” in the sense the editors imply is an illusion. For all that younger Americans are more sympathetic to Palestinians than their elders, the original polling data shows larger or similar majorities among under-35 grouping for support for Israel, a range of harsh measures against Palestinians and their allies in the United States, and the elimination of Hamas. It is possible that many respondents understood “justified” to mean “justified in those terms by Hamas” rather than normative political support.

Evaluation of the positions

That the SWP has dropped substantial criticism of Hamas’s tactical choices is a function of the basic incoherence of position 3. Let us say that we adopt, as part of 3, the traditional Marxist criticism of terror tactics that they are counterproductive and tend to sideline progressive or working-class forces, and apply the resultant position to October 7. In such a case, we are left saying that we support the killing of hundreds of civilians, both Israelis and migrant workers, even though it is counterproductive from the point of view of the Palestinian struggle, as well as, obviously, horrific in its human implications. In that case, anyone can reasonably ask: Why do you support (or fail to oppose) it then? There is no good answer to this question.

Once we retreat to 2, however, we are left with a position that gives us no principle by which to hold back from sharp criticism and firm opposition to tactics directed at the killing of civilians. Why not go as far as to condemn them? Since the second position allows both opposition to and criticism of Hamas’s tactics, if we want a reason not to do so, it must be on the basis of another, separate principle. (Although there is no room to expand on this point here, my interpretation of recent interventions by a number of socialist writers is that this principle has been found in a politics of discourse—that is, arguments about what it is not strategic or ethical to say, quite apart from what is true.)

Not that position 2 is totally stable. The obvious objection to 2 is that if you criticize and oppose certain tactics as counterproductive, it is not clear why you are obligated to support an organization that consistently and characteristically deploys such tactics. It is possible to think of organizations whose use of progressive, productive tactics is or was overwhelmingly more important than their occasional use of unproductive ones. The African National Congress is an obvious example. Other organizations might share our broad political orientation or both represent a segment of society indispensable to the struggle and have the capacity to evolve tactically. Karl Marx seemed to see the Fenians, for example, in this category, whether accurately or otherwise.

But in a case like Hamas, these considerations do not apply. They have, now and then, achieved marginal progressive gains or pursued progressive policies. But overall, it is hard to argue that so far they have been productive for the Palestinian national cause. The general effect of their strategy and tactics has been to militarize the Palestinian struggle on Palestinian land, undermining the mass involvement that characterized the First Intifada and empowering the hard right-wing of Israeli politics. It is hard to point to any positive results arising from their suicide bombing campaign, for instance, and easy to point to negative ones. Was Hamas’s trajectory understandable, as an expression of the Gazan experience at the moment that the organization emerged, laden with trauma and humiliation, in the ideological climate of the Islamic revival and amid Israel’s co-optation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and its violence against Palestinian civilians? Yes. But empathy neither implies support nor contradicts opposition.

Color photo on a rubble-strewn road with weeds off to the right. The shot is taken from behind about a dozen soldiers, many with white helmets. They carry truncheons and assault rifles. Facing them across a razor-wire barrier is a crowd of fifty or more unarmed young people, apparently all boys. Smoke rises just behind the crowd. One protester holds up a picture that appears to be of Yasser Arafat; another holds up a Palestinian flag. Some distance back, two boys stand on a the wall of a crude one-story structure. One of them has a posture as if he is following through on throwing a rock toward the soldiers.
The First Intifada, Gaza, December 1987: In a scene repeated throughout the Occupied Territories, young Palestinians square off against the IDF. Image by Efi Sharir.

The more defensible position is the first. This seems to accomplish most of what socialists want from their positions on national liberation struggles, without committing in principle to the support of a range of counterproductive tactics, perhaps including crimes against humanity, and the organizations that consistently employ them. That would not preclude support of actual organizations or tactics circumstantially when they are of themselves supportable. But it would not make that support an invariant principle.

What position does Tempest hold? The recent editorial welcomed the “legitimate debates” that had arisen since October7, including over “the targeted killing of non-combatants.” The editors wrote that “socialists do not need to endorse the resistance tactics chosen by the oppressed before determining which side we’re on,” and that within those debates “our answers must be premised on our unconditional support for Palestinian liberation as a foundational principle.” None of this goes further than position 1, which would be welcome. However, that position is a novel expression of the “unconditional but critical” formulation, one sharply different from the previous uses of that phrase. Whatever the position, making the distinction explicit will aid theoretical clarity and prevent the confusion that has characterized the politics of the IS tradition since the 1970s.

A right to choose tactics of resistance?

The Tempest editors make another claim, a novel one, that Palestinians have the “right to fight in whatever way they choose.” What does this mean? Does it represent a version of position 3, to the effect that others cannot legitimately oppose the use of any tactics that Palestinians choose to deploy, even if those others do not support the use of the tactic? If so, it runs into the same problems with that position I have set out above.

Or does it mean that, even though we might harshly criticize and strongly oppose a given tactic, we still defend the Palestinian “right” to deploy it? The nature of a right is that it confers on others an overriding obligation to support the realization of that right, or at least not to impede its realization.

At one level, to say that “the choice is theirs” is a factual description of the situation. We can’t make Palestinians’ choices for them. Given that, in what possible circumstances could the right arise? Only if there were some opportunity to prevent or assist Palestinians from deploying a tactic that we oppose could such a right ever have meaning. It would only have meaning, furthermore, if this right overrode all other rights that might be in question—for example, of civilians to life.

This can only lead us to affirm absurd positions. For instance, let’s say we oppose the killing of a dozen or so migrant workers, even if only on grounds that it’s counterproductive. What does it mean to say that we oppose such acts but also that Palestinians have a “right” to carry them out? The implication would be that we “oppose” the killings, but also that we wouldn’t stop them if we could, or would even prevent others stopping them—in which case our supposed opposition has no content. How do we affirm the right to life of those workers as well as the alleged Palestinian right to kill them? It might be possible to retreat to a fine distinction between the right to actually carry out the killings and the right to choose to carry them out. But what is the political value in defending choices only if they do not lead to consequences?

Counterintuitively this whole approach falls foul of the sort of critique made by Leon Trotsky of “the point of view of ‘pure morals’” and by brian bean of “moralism”: it places some putative principle mechanically over an assessment of all the consequences. Here the principle would be the right of Palestinians to do what they want—as long as it counts as resistance—rather than, for example, the right of civilians in Israel to life. Thus, it points toward more indiscriminate violence, not less. But that does not make the form of the position less moralistic.

The whole idea of a “right to choose” tactics existing separately and apart from the question of whether one supports or opposes the implementation of those tactics (and in what material circumstances) can only lead to confusion. Although no doubt inspired by respect for the subjectivity of the oppressed, the principle is the wrong way to demonstrate that respect. It can only lead to incoherent conclusions.


The goal of this article has just been to clarify and critique two of the ideas raised in Tempest’s recent editorial: “unconditional but critical support” and the “right to choose” tactics of resistance. I hope the result is to simplify matters: there is no general need to support any tactic or organization that we criticize as counterproductive or harmful, particularly if its human consequences are also terrible. There is no general right to implement such tactics. None of this qualifies our support for any national cause.
Given constraints of length, it has not been possible here to consider other crucial questions raised by the debate over the socialist response to October 7 and the ongoing war. What was the political effect, specifically, of the attacks on civilians inside Israel? What is the relationship between moral ideas and political strategy? What does Israel’s settler-colonial character imply about the limits of its domestic politics? Is Israel winning or losing the current war? Is Israel really a vital prop for U.S. capitalism? Once we have arrived at a position on any of these matters, what considerations dictate how we should articulate ourselves publicly in order to maximize our effectiveness as proponents of the Palestinian national cause? In what ways does the national location of those of us in the West constrain our ability to speak meaningfully on these topics? These questions will have to wait for another occasion.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by AutaAutistik; modified by Tempest.

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Tom Dale View All

Tom Dale is a London-based writer who has worked in civilian protection, conflict analysis, and journalism in the Middle East. Follow his work at @tom_d_.