Note: the following is a personal analysis of the events described here. The formulations ascribed to others are my own and my own responsibility. Because the ideological confrontations, described here, were not fully developed or articulated, it was necessary to develop my own interpretation of different positions. I would have preferred to analyze official statements as to the debate and its scope, but these are still to emerge.. The Communist Party of Israel (MAKI) is of importance because it is heir to the rich - though complex - traditions of Israeli communism. No less importantly, MAKI is the founder and the main force in the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE). The DFPE actually doubled its vote in the last parliamentary election (May 1996) and holds five seats in the Israeli Knesset. In the form of the party or the front, MAKI is the largest, organized force in Israeli’s Palestinian Arab population. It is certainly of significance that MAKI continues, as in the past, to see the Arab-Jewish composition of the party as a major, guiding principle for theory and practice.
Though the party itself, MAKI, has always stressed stability and continuity and shunned change for the sake of change - even its most devoted admirers would be ready to admit that the crisis which has hit all the Communist parties, with the collapse of the Soviet union and related events, has posed many, severe, existential problems with which the party is grappling on a day to day basis.The 23rd Congress
Preparations for the party’s recent congress at the end of June were marked by a number of contradictory trends. Though the existence of serious political tensions in the party was no secret, the Central Committee worked out two unanimous reports (political and organizational) which were presented to the cadre in the spirit of unity and consensus. No member of the CC actually challenged the reports or any part thereof. On the other hand, there was no sign of a solution regarding the festering conflict that created a totally anomalous situation in the Tel Aviv district of the party.
For all practical purposes, two CP’s and two DFPE branches have existed in Tel Aviv for almost two years. It seemed inevitable that the political basis for the de facto split in Tel Aviv would find its expression at the coming congress. For those who know MAKI over the years, there is certainly interest in the identity of the leaders of the two, de facto factions. Former General Secretary, Meir Wilner, is the leader of one group which includes, among others, Attorney Avraham Melamed, Hans Lebrecht, Yoska Wallerstein.
The second group is led by MK Tamar Gozansky and Benyamin Gonen, MAKI Histadrut representative and includes Sasha Khinen, Uzi Burshtein, and Yaffa Gavish. Of course, almost any attempt to define the two groups reveals something about this author’s preferences for the Gozansky group, which should, for the sake of honesty, be revealed at this point. Wilner represents Communist orthodoxy which seems to stress, that the most important task, in the given difficult circumstances, is to counter revisionist conclusions stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tamar Gozansky appears to emphasize that the survival of Communism depends on the success of a long process of renewal, based on an understanding that the collapse of the Soviet Union must have far reaching theoretical and practical implications.
In truth, careful reading of the party’s theoretical journal, Arikhim, edited by Wilner, on one hand, and the party weekly, Zu Haderech, edited by Gozansky, could have given a highly informed reader some inkling of the political tendencies involved. Wilner seems to be involved in promoting the Communist Party of the Russian Federation as the new model party for the entire movement; many a bow is directed in the direction of Gus Hall for his valiant struggle against revisionism. The Portugal CP is definitely “in”, while new elements in Communist strategy in France and Italy are still being “examined.” Zu Haderech has excellent coverage of labor struggles here in the country and can, for the first time in years, cite the participation of MAKI representatives in these struggles, in one form or another. Zu Haderch goes out of its way to publish contributions by non-party people, and is generally a much more open affair - though up till now, we have not had any open confrontation or violation of party protocol from either side. And party protocol is quite adept at keeping inner struggles away from the public eye.
The Arab Cadre
Arabs make up at least 80%, (if not more) of the party membership and cadres. Therefore, the question of the party’s direction, would, in many senses, be decided during and after the party congress by the position that the Arab cadres would adopt regarding the festering conflict in the “Jewish sector.” Naturally, the ideological conflict that developed in the Jewish sector of the party was meaningful for many of the Arab activists who were prone to sympathize with one of the two groups. However, for a number of reasons, the debate in the Arab sector took on different forms. It must be understood that the argument as articulated to this point had no practical bearing whatsoever on the current political line of the CP regarding the basic, day to day questions of policy regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. Moreover, many party members, Jews and Arabs, feel that unity is more important than the debate - at least at this stage. In one discussion, party leader, M. Naffah, was quoted as saying that he agreed ideologically with the Wilner group, but he agreed organizationally with the Gozansky group. The sense of the statement was that Wilner’s firm adherence to classical principles expresses his own personal preference. However, he is not willing to accept the Wilner dictate to the effect the Gozansky group is a social-democratic deviation, pulling the party away from its spiritual anchor in Leninist principle.The Congress - First Results
It appears that the main thrust of Wilner’s demands, before and during the Congress was that the party leadership, and especially the Arab cadre, accept his analysis regarding the Gozansky group and adopt some sort of administrative sanctions, to put the party back on the true course. The Wilner faction approached the Congress as a fight over loyalty to party procedures and rules. Wilner initiated a fight in the mandate committee over alleged irregularities that allowed seating party leaders who did not have a chance to be elected as delegates from the Tel Aviv branch under his domination. Wilner threatened the Congress with the accusation that it was an illegal affair and in order to make this point he boycotted the whole affair personally, though his supporters were present and vociferous in presenting a catalog of “revisionist sins” against Gozansky and Gonen. It is hard to understand why the Wilner group failed so miserably. They never received more than 10% of the votes of the delegates on the procedural issues which they fought on the floor of the Congress. They decided to boycott the new bodies up for election. The overwhelming number of delegates, Arabs and Jews simply refused to relate seriously to a list of accusations that was based on catechism and cant. There were, of course, many Arab delegates who supported the Gozansky tendency. There were probably even more who rejected the Wilner demands for fear that steps against Gozansky meant remaining with Wilner and his faction and would lead to even greater isolation of the party in the Israeli Jewish public. At any rate, the results of the congress, the election of the new bodies (the Central Committee and the Political Bureau elected at its first session) all indicate that the party has clearly turned its back on the Wilner faction.
An Important Sub-Text: A New Political Culture
Two members of the CC represented the party at the recent congresses of the French and the Italian sister parties. CC members Issam Makhul and Dov Khinen, both returned with enthusiastic reports on the development of a entire new political culture.This new culture and style had managed to overcome, in the main, those external trappings of the old Communist movement which developed out of a disproportional and un-revolutionary tendency to copy the style and the culture of the Soviet Communist party. These trappings seemed to many the actual Leninist essence of the party, while in fact, they represented a rather servile mentality that admired Soviet style and practice, whether it had anything to do with revolutionary thought and practice.
Many Israeli Communists have yet to be convinced that Wilner’s approach leads the party into a cul de sac. They have a deep and strong sense of loyalty to the previous status and battle of the party, and may fear that change, may lead to a loss of principle and uniqueness that characterized the party over the years. However, the party leadership as a whole understands that deep and complex changes in the conditions of its existence and operation must, of necessity, mean transformation and modernization.
From the side, it appears that conservatism in the party is based on the party’s tendency to secrecy and opaqueness and the real move forward will involve major steps to enhance party democracy and transparency. After all is said and done, one of the major roles of the party is the development of an acute and developed political consciousness in the cadre and around the party. This would mean that the public airing of differences of opinion and approach, inevitable in any living political organism, would enhance the party’s prestige. The party must show its ability to debate and to decide. Debate without decision is indeed a dangerous habit, but decision must be based on the widest, open public debate. There is every reason for optimism, though, as we know, dogmatic and conservative instincts have a way of persisting.
Why It Happened
In the final analysis, the tensions in MAKI are linked to opposing conceptions as to the lessons to be learned from the demise of Soviet Communism. The sense one has in reading and hearing the message of Meir Wilner and his associates is that the collapse was more in the way of a conjectural mishap. Serious mistakes were left unrectified and opportunist elements in the leadership opened the gates of counter-revolution. Perestroika seems to have been a good idea, glasnost a catastrophe that jettisoned the leading rule of the party. Wilner and friends are great admirers of People’s China and totally convinced that China is building socialism - the firm domination of the Communist party over the processes being a guarantee of its success. The organizational difficulties in the Israeli party appear as a result of deviation from Leninist principles and from old-style democratic-centralism, whose absence in the Soviet Union seems to have been one of the chief reason for the retreat. International Communist support for the Soviet Union and the CPSU was justified in theory and practiced and the main source of the movement’s strength.
The Gozanksy group, admittedly by its nature a more heterogeneous affair, feels that there were substantial structural reasons for the collapse of the Soviet union and all it symbolized. At any rate, the presentation of one, given form of socialism, which developed in highly specific conditions as the model and the ideal of socialism was counter-productive. Abject worship of the Soviet model, certainly did incredible harm to the revolutionary movement and robbed it of its ability to orient itself in new and more complex conditions. The party must be sensitive to new currents of revolutionary theory and strategy as they develop. In any case, all international experience must be adapted to the unique conditions in which the party operates.
These contrasting summaries of the party’s historical experience are undoubtedly the deeper source of current tensions. The battle of ideas and over their meaning for revolutionary practice in this old-new debate is important for all who treasure the principles of socialism and internationalism.