Sad End to a Marxist Experiment in Palestine: The PLO
June 15, 2007
by William P. Meyers
Today by all reports Hamas has, at least temporarily, eliminated the Palestinian Liberation Organization from power in the Gaza Strip. The PLO still dominates in the West Bank of Palestine and PLO member Mahmoud Abas is still President of the territorial (not national) government, but its dominance is shaky.
The PLO might serve as textbook example of how not to run a national liberation organization. The PLO's record, or course, is mixed by whatever reasonable standards you judge by. Formed in 1964 out of a convention of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO faced a strong Israel with conflicting support from Arab nations. While its ideology was clearly nationalistic, most of its factions were also Marxist, in the socialist-to-communist spectrum. In the mid-1960's and into the 1980's the strength of the Soviet Union and China and the success of Marxist and nationalist wars of national liberation against the U.S. and European empires made the PLO's embracement of Marxism seem rational.
The key point is: the PLO engaged in a multi-faceted political and military war to regain Palestine from the Israeli occupation. The did it with very little help from non-Palestinian Arabs. They made enormous sacrifices; many of those who were not killed spent long periods in prisons. They put the plight of the Palestinian people back on the world's agenda. So how did they lose the support of the people in Gaza and the West Bank?
It is only fair to state that failure is always a political problem. With the U.S. supplying and shielding Israel, with the strength the Israeli economy and military, and with little meaningful support from Saudi Arabia, the PLO program of driving off the Israelis had no chance of success. Any organization would have failed given those odds. You can always count on people for blaming the PLO for not doing the impossible; Palestinians, to some extent, blamed the PLO for its failures.
But in other areas the PLO failed when it might have succeeded. They failed to find a way to build an economy. They allowed their leadership structure to become a house of economic corruption. And they failed to provide a workable philosophy for the Palestinians in refuge camps.
Marxism competed quite successfully with the organized, traditional religions between about 1850 and about 1990. It promised pie on a plate rather than pie in the sky. It promised equality for working people and equality for all ethnic groups; it led the world in establishing the equality of women on a large scale. The social-democratic (as opposed to Leninist-dictatorial) style of Marxism is still going strong in some nations. But in the Palestinian towns and refuge camps it began to sound as hollow as Catholicism sounded to many Europeans during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500's.
I did not believe this when I first heard it. I met at political meetings (in Berkeley, of course) two Palestinian students who were Marxists of the Leninist variety. But one day they told me that they were considering switching to supporting an Islamic organization. This was back around 1983. Why would educated, rational people embrace an irrational religion? Because they already knew, way back then, that the PLO was a failure. That its Marxism was a shell; that it had become an organization devoted to fleecing the people rather than leading them to a utopia.
Over the years I have thought back to that conversation many times. I don't care much for organized religion (see my Religion pages). I believe that religious people are just as apt to be hypocritical and corrupt as atheists. But I have observed, in history and in current times, that some times an organization comes together that is not corrupt, and the people in the organization maintain that character for a considerable period of time.
Most of the time most of the people find it easier to put up with corruption than to do something about it. Corrupt organizations usually have the power to punish honest people. But some times situations become so bad that ordinary people will reject corruption and even fight it.
That is what happened in Palestine, and the organization that embodied the purity of spirit necessary to fight corruption just happened to be Islamic. This is not to say that Islam was not founded primarily as a moral and ethical organization; its history clearly shows that it was. But Islam was also corrupted early; for many of its adherents the seizure of booty became its primary attraction even before The Prophet died.
While Hamas's aim of destroying the state of Israel (See Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement) has motivated its most militant members, I suspect that is not the main reason it has such widespread popular support in Gaza.
Nor do I think the PLO lost support because of its godless Marxism. I don't think many Palestinians have either a free-market capitalist or an anarchist critique of Marxist state-socialism. I don't think they hated Yasser Arafat on a personal level.
It is an important lesson for all political organizations. Party leaderships that are filled with parasites, as in the Democratic and Republican Parties in the U.S.A., can survive during periods of moral decay and economic prosperity. But new parties can be built based on honesty and justice, and when times are rough these organizations may grow at surprisingly rapid rates.
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