From the February 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
There is no question that individuals do influence society and that without an emphasis on the background and nature of outstanding individuals a complete picture of their times is not possible. The problem is, simply, that too much is made of their importance in the fashioning of history. As Karl Kautsky puts it in Foundations of Christianity:
. . . in terms of historical epochs, their influence is only transitory, merely the outer ornament which strikes the eye first in a building but says nothing about its foundations. But it is the foundations that determine the character of the structure and its permanence . . .
To put the proposition in another way: to understand the basic structure of a society is to grasp the underlying significance behind the actions of outstanding individuals. Take, for example, the apparent earth-shattering decision of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat to parley with the Israelis for “peace” and the return of Arab lands to their former owners. Consider, too, the stiff-backed arguments of Israel’s Menachem Begin on the “historical right” of the Jewish people to return to Samaria and Judea (commonly referred to – but not by Begin – as the West Bank).
Were one to base one’s understanding on popular belief, the new development in Middle East politics is the brainchild of Anwar Sadat. Millions of words are churned out by the media on his and his lovely wife’s personal backgrounds, their devotion to Allah and to the pressing economic problems of the Egyptian masses. Sadat is widely termed “courageous” excepting, to be sure, in some parts of the Arab world where he is labelled “traitor.” Whatever the appellation, however, he is thought of as the instigator of Egypt’s current political moves.
Now, it is not necessary to construct a theory based upon conspiracy to understand that the business class of Egypt and of Israel have orchestrated the present politics of “peace” in their immediate orbits. The symphony does not have to sound, upon original completion, as a finished work and is subject to refinement. Even the master composers of the classics were known to change their scores from the originals. And so it is with the bourgeoisies of Israel and Egypt. There is a constant urge, a need, in capitalist society for trade and capital investment that transcends historical prejudices. That such activity leads, inevitably, to further ruptures and war is but a contradiction of capitalism and beside the point. Business must go on, somehow, but it is not easy-to whatever extent it is possible — for nations to carry on profitable relations with one another when in a legal state of war.
As a matter of fact, the bourgeoisie, as a whole, is never really pleased with a perpetual need to build armaments and wage war with one another. It is costly and the experiences of the West German and Japanese capitalist class since their defeat in World War II prove how much more profitable it is when huge military establishments do not have to be maintained.
The point is that, whatever the outcome of current negotiations, one should learn more by examining Israeli and Egyptian business needs than by studying the personal characteristics of their heads of state.
Now, what of that “historical right” of the Jewish people to settle in Samaria and Judea (the West Bank)? There are, of course, two main opposing points of view: the area, in biblical times, was Jewish and is thus part of the traditional Jewish homeland; Arab occupancy for a couple of thousand years – more or less – makes it Arab territory. Upon analysis, both views are unsound and unfounded. In the first place, there is no real essence behind the premise that those who espouse Judaism (willingly or not) in our times are descendants of those early Jewish inhabitants of Samaria and Judea. Aside from the intermarriage and general miscegenation between Jews and non-Jews in mediaeval and modem times Judaism, in very early times, was a proselytising religion, particularly so in the early years of Rome’s imperial greatness. As Kautsky puts it:
Among the many religions that came together in the Roman world empire the Jewish was the one best suited to the thoughts and needs of the time. It was not superior to the philosophy of the ‘heathen’ but to their religions — no wonder that the Jews felt far superior to the Gentiles and that the number of their supporters grew rapidly. ‘Judaism wins over all men,’ says the Alexandrian Jew Philo, ‘and exhorts them to virtue; barbarians, Hellenes, men of the mainland and men of the islands, the nations of the East like those of the West, Europeans, Asiatics, the peoples of the world.’ We expected Judaism to become the religion of the world. This was the time of Christ. (Foundations of Christianity).
And Kautsky goes on to say in his next paragraph:
. . . as early as 139 B.C. in Rome itself Jews were expelled for making Italian proselytes. It was reported from Antioch that the larger part of the Jewish community there consisted of converted Jews (rather than born Jews). It must have been so in many other cities as well . . .
Is it not preposterous, then, to relate present world Jewry to the historical inhabitants of Samaria and Judea or of Palestine, generally?
On the other hand, neither Jews nor Arabs, for the most part, could lay claim to meaningful ownership of the land on which they lived in biblical times any more than they can today. Throughout the period of recorded history the land in any part of civilization has been, mainly, the property of a small minority of any national population. The lesson is still to be learned: “Our land” so far as the vast majority is concerned is ours only in philosophy, poetry, and song — not in actuality. And the only historic right enjoyed by working people anywhere in the civilized world is the right to be exploited (when they can be “used”) by, and subject to, a ruling class and its state.
WSP (US), Boston.