Palestine and the classless politics of settler colonial theory

by Jordan Humphreys • Published 13 June 2024

Israel’s brutal war on the people of Gaza, and the support this war has received from governments around the world, has once again shown that the modern Middle East is wracked by the violence of imperialism. A new generation of young people in the Western world have been shaken up by Israel’s actions, and in the process have come to reject many of the Zionist myths that for too long have hidden Israel’s crimes.

For many the oppression of the Palestinians seems similar to other examples of injustice that they care about, such as the treatment of African Americans, anti-migrant racism and the oppression of Indigenous peoples in Australia or the US. Israel is seen as another embodiment of white supremacy, colonialism and racism alongside Donald Trump, the police, Western corporations and the far right. This has given many the confidence to stridently reject the claims that criticising Israel is anti-Semitic and that the conflict is simply too complex to take a side.

Many of the young left-wing people grappling with these issues have adopted a framework for understanding them that is heavily influenced by the politics of settler colonial theory. This theory argues that many of the examples of racism and oppression seen in the world today are the products of colonialism, and often a particular form called settler colonialism. This colonialism is often seen as a product of “whiteness” and the inherent drive within Western culture to dominate other territories and peoples. Because of this, an anti-colonial struggle is needed that unites the Indigenous population and their potential allies against the settler population in a battle for decolonisation.

This is seen as being a useful framework for understanding not only the plight of the Palestinians but also other cases of oppression and racism. So the oppression of Indigenous people within Australia is said to be due to an ongoing process of colonisation that benefits all of settler society. The same is true in the US, with the addition that racialised minorities such as African Americans or Hispanic and Latino Americans are seen as members of internal colonies being exploited by the rest of the settler population of the United States.

For many, the politics of anti-colonialism has been a starting point for rejecting the racist lies of capitalist society and supporting the struggles of the oppressed. In this sense, it is a positive move away from the limitations of liberal multiculturalism and moderate centrism with its emphasis on gradually reforming capitalism into a supposedly “post-racial”, “colour-blind” society.

However, there are also significant problems with settler colonial theory and the contemporary politics of anti-colonialism. Most importantly, it either discounts or heavily distorts the relationship between imperialism and racism, and abandons any serious understanding of class and capitalism more broadly. This has important implications for developing the kind of organisations and struggles we need to successfully confront racism and oppression in the Middle East and throughout the world.

In previous issues of the Marxist Left Review, I’ve explored the problems that arise when applying settler colonial theory to understanding Indigenous oppression in Australia. In brief, I argued that settler colonial theory is inaccurate because it presents Indigenous oppression in contemporary Australia as being caused by an ongoing colonial process rather than capitalism. This leads settler colonial theorists to place the blame for anti-Indigenous racism on the entirety of “settler society”, including non-Indigenous workers. Settler colonial theorists argue that the mass of workers in Australia are essentially akin to the settler population in Israel. This ignores the history of non-Indigenous workers supporting the struggles of Indigenous people in Australia and absolves the Australian ruling class and capitalism of their role in oppressing Indigenous people.[1]

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, however, settler colonial theory can seem much more useful. After all, Israel most definitely is a settler colonial state and it is involved in an ongoing process of colonisation in which it seeks to dispossess the Palestinian population of their remaining control over sections of Gaza and the West Bank. Also, while reasonable people can debate exactly why this is the case, it is clear that orienting towards the Israeli working class as the key ally for the Palestinians is a dead-end strategy. There is also a long tradition of radicals and socialists arguing that Israel is a settler colonial state to rebut those who want to defend Israel’s existence and its genocidal actions.

However, there are important limitations to the settler colonial theory analysis even in the case of Israel and Palestine. Here we must distinguish between the analysis that Israel is a settler colonial state, a position shared by revolutionary Marxists, Arab nationalists, anarchists, Stalinists, anti-Zionist liberals and others, and the broader political framework of settler colonial theory.

While it is absolutely correct to distinguish between the oppressors and the oppressed, this is only the beginning of any serious analysis of the oppression of the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the narrow framing of the question by settler colonial theorists as only being about settlers versus Indigenous people leaves essential questions unanswered. This article will hope to demonstrate that Marxism offers a much more sophisticated and deeper framework to understand Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and its relationship to broader dynamics of capitalism in the Middle East and globally.

Colonialism, imperialism and capitalism in the Middle East

Control over the Middle East has long been an important project of various imperialist nations due to the region’s central role in both global trade routes and the production of raw materials, particularly oil. The geopolitical structure of the modern Middle East is largely the product of various partition plans and occupations by the British and French empires during the early twentieth century, who sought to mould the region to suit their interests. Following the decline of the European powers the United States took a leading role in defending and entrenching the interests of Western capitalism in the region, from forging alliances with the Gulf states and Egypt to providing Israel with military funding and diplomatic support, and invading countries that were seen as bucking Western control, such as Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. This is the historical context for both the creation of the Israeli state, the role it has played in the region and the continued support it has obtained from capitalist governments around the world. So understanding, and opposing, colonialism and imperialism are of course important for grasping the history and present nature of the oppression of the Palestinians and the situation in the Middle East more generally.

However, this is not the whole picture. While the Middle East has long been dominated by the interests of imperialist powers residing outside of the region, it would be wrong to present the situation as one of a homogeneous, undifferentiated “Middle East” dominated by foreign imperialism. As the Marxist writer Adam Hanieh has argued, “capitalist class formation in the Middle East has become increasingly tied to the ebbs and flows of accumulation at the global scale”, and this has led to the creation of a “domestic capitalist class internal to the Middle East that is to a great extent aligned with the interests of global (imperialist) capital”.[2]

Even before Western imperialism established a foothold in the region, the Middle East was dominated by class societies with long-established structures of inequality and exploitation. Since then capitalism has developed throughout the region, creating powerful and wealthy ruling classes and states, and a mass of exploited workers. The modern Middle East is not simply dominated by imperialism, a system in which Middle Eastern ruling classes at any rate are complicit, it is also divided sharply by class. Challenging the class structure of the region and the capitalist system that underlies it must then be an essential part of any movement seeking to seriously combat imperialism in the Middle East.

It is precisely on this point that settler colonial theorists fall short. Because they treat colonialism as a discrete factor that should be analysed primarily on its own terms, these theorists cannot accurately explain the roots of imperialism and they have little appreciation of the role that class and capitalism play in the region. They tend to apologise, either explicitly or implicitly, for the crimes of ruling classes among the oppressed group. In both these senses, settler colonial theory is a contemporary variation of the third world nationalism of earlier generations.

Patrick Wolfe, the founder of settler colonial theory as an academic field of study, presents settler colonialism as a self-perpetuating political system in which settler societies are driven by a “logic of elimination” due to their desire for unrestricted control over land. Offhand references to capitalism aside, Wolfe spends little time looking at the material interests underlying this desire for land but rather focuses on its various ideological and cultural manifestations.[3] As critics have increasingly noted, Wolfe also created a highly rigid and abstract model of colonialism, in which settler colonies, as distinct from franchise colonies, had no interest in the Indigenous population bar wiping them off the face of the earth, a crude picture that doesn’t fit with the concrete reality of settler colonial regimes across history.[4] Lorenzo Veracini, another influential academic in the field, is even more explicit in seeing colonialism as an autonomous force to be analysed in isolation from the rest of society, theorising settler colonialism as a distinct “mode of domination”.[5]

In response to criticism that they ignore the material aspects of colonialism, settler colonial theorists have tried to relate their analysis to capitalism. They can only do so by significantly distorting what the capitalist system is and how it works, in order to make it fit into their inaccurate understanding of colonialism.

So Veracini, drawing upon the economist David Harvey, argues that capitalism is defined by a constant and never-ending process of “accumulation by dispossession” or “perpetual primitive accumulation”.[6] By this Veracini means that what drives capitalism is the system’s need to steal land, resources and wealth by dispossession, force and theft. This then is supposedly the connection between settler colonialism and capitalism. Settler colonies like Israel are simply the vanguard of this process of dispossession, its most undiluted form. For Veracini settler colonialism even comes to “fundamentally define” the logic of modern capitalism. So the current workings of the financial institutions or the property market or the expansion of the fossil fuel industry are also said to be expressions of this “perpetual primitive accumulation” and bizarrely reveal that the whole world is a settler colony.

But this is very different from the traditional Marxist understanding of capitalism. Marx argued that what was at the core of the system was the exploitation of workers by bosses; it was this and only this that created the huge amounts of surplus wealth that the ruling class used to enrich themselves and create the whole modern industrial capitalist economy on a scale previously impossible. It is the exploitation of the working class, and the competition between bosses for control over the wealth this produces, that defines capitalism as a system. It is on this bedrock that the capitalist state system was constructed, to ensure the continued exploitation of labour power, to regulate the stability of capitalist society, and as the vehicle through which geopolitical competition between imperialist powers could play out. Dispossession, military conquest and outright theft of course occur, and have occurred under capitalism, but they happen within this broader context of the dynamics of capitalist society; they are not the driving feature of it.

The settler colonial theory view of capitalism as driven by “accumulation by dispossession” or “perpetual primitive accumulation” echoes traditional liberal and reformist critiques of the system that see the problems of capitalism as due to its predatory nature rather than the production of surplus value through the economic exploitation of workers. As Jack Davies, a critic of settler colonial theory explains, for the settler colonial theorist:

[t]he problem with capitalism is, as it has always been, that it is predatory; and predation, on capitalism’s own ideology of justice and fairness, is immoral. This moralism evaporates the analytic distinctions that would specify the settler colony and acquits its theorist of historical study. Even the firm and gritty matter of land, settler colonialism’s “irreducible element”, is airily abstracted into phenomenological standpoint theories and metaphysical assertions about the “logic of elimination”.[7]

It is unsurprising then that settler colonial theorists don’t appreciate the importance of understanding how class and capitalism underpin and shape imperialism, colonialism and racism. In particular, they fail to grasp how capitalism, due to its drive to gain profits out of the exploitation of workers, also creates a working class with the potential power to challenge its rule. This is something that would not occur if capitalism was simply stripping the Middle East of its resources and leaving nothing behind but a network of military bases. Of course, economic development in the Middle East has not been some linear progression that follows earlier European models. It has been marked by the interventions of powerful imperialist states who have sought to shape the economic structures of the region for their benefit, but also the emergence of domestic class forces, both rulers and ruled. As you would expect, given these complex and evolving factors, the nature of this intervention has changed over time.

Before the Second World War economic development in the region was focused on supplying cotton, silk, wheat and olive oil to Europe, while the Middle East was seen as a market for some European goods such as textiles. During this period capitalist industry developed very slowly and the historian Anne Alexander argues that “the political and social institutions fostered by colonial-era capitalism were specifically designed to preclude” the development of domestic industry.[8]

Even during this period though there were exceptions that would have ramifications for the later history of the region. Alexander points out that Iran and Turkey, which did not experience direct colonial rule, were able to begin the process of capitalist transformation much earlier, in the process becoming powerful states in the region. Meanwhile much of the Gulf also didn’t experience direct colonial control, because at first the economic value of the area was dismissed by the European powers. Once oil production entered the picture, the rulers of the Gulf were thrust into imperial relationships and capitalist development in a very different context from those countries that had suffered under decades of colonial occupation.

The 1940s and ’50s saw explosive uprisings across the Middle East against colonial rule and economic inequality. Space opened up for greater economic development in the newly founded post-colonial states, albeit still shaped by the history of underdevelopment and hostility from rival imperialist powers. The second half of the twentieth century saw capitalist industry grow throughout the region and with it both industrial capitalist classes tied to various competing nation-states and working classes exploited by their rulers.

The contradictory dynamics of capitalist development in the Middle East is something ignored by settler colonial theorists. By seeing capitalism as essentially something external to the region parasitising it, rather than deeply embedded and constitutive of the social and political order of the region, is it little wonder then that the existence of Arab ruling classes and working classes is ignored by them?

The origins of Israel

Taking a closer look at how settler colonial theory analyses the nature of Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians – precisely the situation where it should be of most use – helps to clarify the pitfalls of their approach more concretely.

The origins of the Israeli state are commonly portrayed by settler colonial theorists as lying in the Jewish settlers making a pact with the West to serve its interests in the region and in the process transforming themselves into a “white” population. As academic Johannes Becke writes, “While American Jews became white by suburbanisation, Israeli Jews did so by colonization”.[9]

This is a very reductive understanding of the origins of Israel on a number of levels.

First of all, it obscures the fact that imperialist nations came to support the Zionist state because it was perceived to be in the interests of their ruling classes and states to do so. It wasn’t in the interests of the undifferentiated mass of people living in the Western countries, the vast majority of whom had no say in the matter anyway. Class divisions run through the so-called “West”.

Secondly, settler colonial theorists see the similarities between the colonial ideologies of the Zionists and the West as key to explaining why Western governments supported the creation of Israel. However, the relationship between Western governments and the Zionist movement was complicated, tension-filled and evolved over time, undermining the idea that common cultural affinities between the two drove the relationship.

The British government, the key Western player in the region in the lead-up to 1948, was primarily concerned with entrenching its control over Mandate Palestine, not, at least initially, in supporting the narrow goals of the Zionist movement. There was considerable debate within the London colonial elite about the positives and negatives of the Zionist project. These debates were underpinned by discussions about what course would best serve the material interests of British imperialism first and foremost. While the British were happy to suppress the rights of the Palestinians, they were hesitant for a long time about unconditionally backing the creation of a Jewish state. They preferred to lord over the region themselves and play the Jewish and Arab populations off against each other, even while granting more concessions and privileges to the Jewish settlers. As the Zionist movement emerged as a powerful force, the British government came to endorse this project as seemingly the best way to stabilise Western influence over the Zionists and the region in the upheavals of the postwar world.

The United States, which would emerge in the postwar world as the major Western imperialist power, was also ambivalent about Israel for some time. It endorsed the establishment of Israel in 1948 but then opposed the failed 1956 invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France. There was a strong “Arabist” wing of the American state department that worried that if the US backed Israel it would send Arab states into the arms of the Soviet Union. It was only after Israel had proven its military credentials in the 1967 war that American state officials swung around to build the tight alliance with Israel they have today.

Here it is also important to note that it was not only the traditional imperialist countries of the West that endorsed the establishment of Israel. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognise Israel, and both the USSR and its satellite states in Eastern Europe supported the UN partition plan in 1947. Until the 1950s the Soviet Union either supported Israel or took a neutral position on conflicts between it and the Arab states. This further complicates the idea that Israel was simply created by the West. It was also a factor in British support for Israel – they were worried that otherwise it could fall into the Soviet camp.

Settler colonial theorists also tend to downplay the existence of class dynamics and capitalist relations within the Zionist movement and Israeli society. Patrick Wolfe, drawing upon another settler colonial theorist, Gershon Shafir, argues that the accumulation of capital was absent from Zionist settler society. Instead, the Zionist economy was based on “non-profit-seeking capital” organised in the collective organisations valorised by the “socialist” wing of the Zionist movement. In Wolfe’s eyes, the settler community was essentially a classless one, outside of capitalism.[10]

The ideological character of the Zionist movement, its focus on creating a separate Jewish state as supposedly the only way to escape European anti-Semitism, is of course essential to understanding why the movement decided to colonise Palestine. The Zionist colonisation of Palestine then wasn’t driven crudely by profit rates; but that doesn’t mean issues of class and capitalism were irrelevant to the situation.

To start with, contra Wolfe, by 1948, 60 percent of the Israeli economy was owned by private capitalists. As well, the capital invested into “collective” Zionist organisations such as the Histadrut was created via exploitation both among the Jewish diaspora and in the decades before and after the creation of Israel. As such, there were clear class divisions among the Jewish settlers, leading to strikes against Jewish bosses. More significantly Wolfe sidesteps the issue of why other capitalist nations would support the creation of the Zionist state and the disruption of an entire region. From a Marxist point of view, it can only be because of the material interests of those capitalist states in promoting the creation of a pro-imperialist enclave in the region.[11]

The argument that Jewish settlers transformed themselves into a “white” population and that Israel is an example of white supremacy is also dubious. There are indeed white nationalists like Richard Spencer who champion Israel. There are also certain similarities between how Zionism racialises the Arab world and racism in Western countries. And there is clearly discrimination against Jews from non-white backgrounds in Israel, such as those who arrived from the Middle East, North Africa or Ethiopia. However, as the Jewish anti-Zionist historian Tony Greenstein argues:

[T]he major division within Israeli society is not between black and white, but between Jewish and non-Jewish, and in particular between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian… The Law of Return allows Jews of any colour to emigrate to Israel anytime they want. That is not a right which non-Jews – black or white – possess. Only Jews can be nationals in Israel and some 93 percent of Israeli land is Jewish national land from which non-Jews are legally barred… Of course, the best land in Israel is reserved for the Ashkenazim. So yes, Zionism is certainly tainted by white supremacy, but this is a secondary, not primary, feature.[12]

The idea that Jewish settlers – including the many Black and Brown ones – became “white” springs from the illogical underpinnings of identity politics which is deeply embedded within settler colonial theory. It flows from the idea that imperialism, racism and colonialism are products of “whiteness” and Western culture, rather than something pursued by capitalist states and nationalist movements regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Are Hindu nationalists in Modi’s India “white” because they organise violent attacks on Muslims and other minorities? Granted, these divisions have historic roots in the imperialist strategies of the old British Raj, but they continue today because of the political dynamics of contemporary Hindu nationalism. The reality is that violent oppression is something that all sorts of capitalist states, political parties and movements can participate in. As capitalist development has spread across the world, including into the Global South, more and more non-Western countries have become violent and oppressive capitalist states. To explain this reality by claiming that ruling figures in these societies have become “white” would mean describing large parts of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa as such.

Most of the current settler colonial projects in the world today are being carried out by “non-white” countries. China’s ongoing push to replace Uyghurs with Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang, India’s colonisation of Kashmir and the genocide of the Rohingya by the military of Myanmar are just some of the most prominent examples. Most theorists of settler colonialism show little interest in this, presumably because it goes against the thesis that settler colonialism is a product of Western culture, and it cuts against the softness on non-Western governments notable in settler colonial theory circles.

Finally, the settler colonial theory framework downplays how the class divisions within the Palestinian population and the broader Arab world facilitated the rise of the Zionist state. Absentee Palestinian landlords sold large tracts of land to the Zionist organisations, helping them gain a substantial foothold in the region. When Palestinian peasants and workers erupted into protest against Zionist attacks, some sections of the Arab elite helped the British crush these movements. King Abdullah I of Jordan, for instance, forged an alliance with the Zionists in the 1930s and received money from the Jewish Agency, a branch of the World Zionist Organization. When the revolt of 1936 began he helped Zionist and British forces isolate and eventually defeat the rebellion. At one point he even tried to encourage Zionist settlement in Jordan, a move blocked by the British government.

Palestinian elites, such as the al-Husayni family, held back the struggles of the Palestinians, instead placing their hopes in negotiations with the British government. This led to a series of tragic defeats for the Palestinians that paved the way for the victory of the Zionist forces in 1948. After the Nakba, Arab ruling classes treated the mass of poor Palestinian refugees disgracefully, shunting them away into refugee camps. It was a different story for the elite of Palestinian society, who quickly carved out a position for themselves within the Arab states as successful business owners and professionals.[13]

This history makes it clear that we can’t have a simple picture of Indigenous people united against settler populations and imperialism. Like so many groups of people the category of Indigenous is divided by class, shaped by capitalism.

A common community of settler colonies?

Another example of the pitfalls of the settler colonial framework is the idea that the reason Western countries like Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand support Israel is because of their common heritage as settler colonial states. As Jewish Voice for Peace Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky puts it: “The ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the United States is rooted in our common national narratives and founding mythology”.[14]

But this can’t explain why governments that have suffered from colonialism such as Modi’s administration in India or the Kenyan government are such strong supporters of Israel. Conversely, it cannot explain why countries like Indonesia that are currently engaged in colonisation are capable of opposing Israel’s actions, even if only at the rhetorical level.

Even in the cases of the United States and Australia, the establishment’s support for Israel has little to do with some shared history of settler colonialism. They support Israel because it is in the interest of their ruling classes to do so. They want to enforce their dominance over the global capitalist system by strengthening their hold over one of the key pillars of Western imperialism in the Middle East. If for some reason it was no longer in their imperialist interests to support Israel then the ruling classes of the West wouldn’t do so, no matter what shared history they might have. This explains why neither the US or Australia are particularly supportive of Chinese colonisation of Tibet and Xinjiang.

The constant historical analogies and abstract categories of settler colonial theorists end up distorting how the world really works.

The idea that Western nations support Israel because of their common colonial history also repeatedly spills over into cultural explanations for imperialist backing of Israel rather than material ones. Surasky from Jewish Voice for Peace argues that:

If the root of this special relationship is not as much AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and money, as much as it is our national narrative and the feelings it engenders – and an unquestioning belief that Israel has an infinite right to expand onto other people’s land, then it is narrative that holds unconditional support in place, and our resistance must also be at the level of narrative.

“All of us in this movement”, Surasky concludes, “have to decolonize our minds”.[15]

It is true that Western support for Israel isn’t due to the influence of AIPAC. But nor is it simply rooted in “our national narrative and the feelings it engenders”, as I’ve already made clear. Narratives can change, and feelings are fickle, but America’s bipartisan support for Israel is grounded in material interests that are yet to be shaken.

The flipside of the argument that Western support for Israel is based on the common heritage of settler colonies also often goes along with the idea that there is also a group of nations that are leading an anti-colonial struggle against Israel, such as South Africa, Ireland, or one or another of the Arab states, particularly those outside the Western camp such as Iran or Syria. Some influenced by a more hardened Stalinist approach champion China or Russia as the saviours of the Palestinians.

This is based upon an extremely shallow and idealised picture of these nations, as well as a misunderstanding of the nature of modern imperialism.

Matt Kennard, a left-wing investigative journalist and founder of Declassified UK, has argued that not only is “solidarity with Palestinians…woven into the fabric” of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin but that “[e]very major political party in the Republic of Ireland now supports Palestinian liberation”.[16]

The reality is quite different. While support for Palestine is quite high among the population, socialists in Ireland have repeatedly criticised the government of the Republic of Ireland, composed of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, of “paddy-washing genocide”.[17] As they point out, the Irish government has refused to expel the Israeli ambassador and didn’t even bring itself to openly support South Africa’s case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Sinn Féin is rhetorically more pro-Palestine, and there is considerable support for the issue among the party’s membership. However, the pro-capitalist core of this party does not have any genuine commitment to fighting against imperialism in the Middle East or elsewhere. When Joe Biden visited Ireland in 2023 Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald ruled out talking to him about Palestine, and instead focused on “Ireland-specific issues”. In October 2023, after Israel’s attack on Gaza had been going on for three weeks, Sinn Féin hailed the arrival of US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kennedy III. As the Irish socialist Somhairle Mag Uidhir explained:

They wined and dined with him at Stormont and with city councillors in Belfast City Hall, got in multiple photo ops across the North, and defiantly trumpeted his presence. While thousands remained trapped under genocide’s rubble, they didn’t utter a peep about the US backing of the Israeli murder machine, much less challenge it. Joe Biden was never named publicly, his main man in the North, Joe Kennedy, given a hero’s welcome when he should have been shunned as a Zionist villain.[18]

The government of South Africa also attracted a lot of support from pro-Palestine activists when it brought Israel before the IJC on the charge of genocide. However, we should be clear that South Africa is not leading an alliance of anti-colonial states in a struggle against imperialism. It is itself a regional capitalist power that seeks to project its influence across Africa while shooting down striking workers and building strong economic ties with the West. The South African ruling class may see in this crisis an opportunity to create some space for itself on the global stage. But it does so not to challenge global inequalities but to enrich and empower itself. Domestically, Ramaphosa’s government remains committed to entrenching privatisation, anti-poor and anti-worker policies, and a reactionary social agenda.

Even on the question of Israel, there is much hypocrisy in the South African government’s positioning. In 2021 trade between South Africa and Israel was valued at $285 million, a third of all trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and Israel. In 2022 53 percent of South African coal exports went to Israel, as did a quarter of its diamonds. Despite significant public pressure South African companies have refused to cut economic ties to Israel since the outbreak of the current war in October last year, and the president of South Africa defied a parliamentary vote to expel the Israeli ambassador.[19]

Class divisions among the Palestinians

Settler colonial theory also significantly downplays, and often totally ignores, the class dynamics within the Palestinian population. As noted earlier, this was a feature of Palestinian society from the very beginning. Since the Nakba the class divisions among Palestinians have continued to be an important issue. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians expelled from Palestine were integrated into the class structures within the surrounding Arab states which if anything exaggerated the already-existing class differences among Palestinians.[20]

Wealthier Palestinians were more insulated from the worst effects of the expulsion. Many Palestinian merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs already had well-established links with capitalists and markets in Arab countries, and transferred what movable assets they could. They then quickly merged into the broader Arab ruling classes, their sons and daughters marrying the children of the Jordanian, Lebanese and Saudi elites. By the 1960s there were hundreds of Palestinian millionaires throughout the Gulf states.

Middle-class Palestinians suffered more but most were able to find employment as professionals or at least skilled workers. Many Arab regimes seeking to modernise became reliant upon the more educated Palestinian middle classes to serve as government administrators, educators and the like.

Eighty percent of the Palestinian refugee population, however, were former peasants and unskilled workers who were viewed as unwelcome and potentially rebellious visitors by the Arab governments. Despite incredible difficulties, this population became more and more integrated into the working class of the Arab world, often forming a particularly radical wing of the workers’ movement. So Palestinian workers played a key role in unionising the oil, construction and transport industries in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In Jordan, the Palestinian population became a large section of the working class and helped form left-wing unions and organisations.

It is these class divisions that lay behind many of the political debates within the Palestinian national movement. The disastrous concept that the PLO should look primarily to the Arab states for support didn’t come out of nowhere, but reflected the fact that the upper sections of the Palestinian population were deeply connected materially to the Arab regimes.

Patrick Wolfe has defended the absence of any discussion about the class divisions within nationally oppressed groups such as the Palestinians by stating that: “I have regularly been accused of binarism – though not once by a Native”.[21] Without accepting the identitarian assumptions behind this ridiculous response, it is worth quoting at length from Tunisian writer Max Ajl:

“Native peoples” do not speak with one voice… The class character of national liberation movements or their antagonists or half-hearted supporters are absent [in Wolfe’s writings]… Class conflicts riddle populations. Some are keen to preserve the occupation/colonialism… For some, “elimination” means enrichment through settler-capitalist domination and its stabilization of neo-colonial domination in the West Bank and the tendrils of finance linking that to Gulf capitalist class formation, while for some, displacement has meant immiseration in the Gaza Strip.[22]

Some anti-colonial theorists can acknowledge divisions within national movements but they see elite layers within nationally oppressed populations as simply sellouts putting their own narrow interests above that of the national movement as a whole, rather than a class pursuing its own class interests. They also often underestimate the problem of middle-class layers within these movements having different class interests from the mass of workers.

This echoes the political framework of Arab nationalists and the Stalinist left who draw a distinction between sections of the Arab elite, or particular leaders or governments, who have become pawns of imperialism, and the “patriotic bourgeoisie” and supposedly anti-imperialist states. However, as Adam Hanieh argues, “it makes little sense to identify a ‘national’ bourgeoisie whose interests are somehow counterposed to those of large international or regional capital”; and

it is a fantasy to hold out the possibility of convincing a “patriotic bourgeoisie” to act in the interests of the majority and build “social democratic” capitalist states in the Middle East. These capitalist classes are part of the problem, not the solution.[23]

The role that the Palestinian Authority has played in working with the Israeli state to suppress any genuine resistance to Israeli rule is often seen as an example of a small section of elites selling out the nation’s cause. Hanieh explains though how the actions of the Palestinian Authority are only explicable from an analysis of the class structure of Palestinian society. Since Israel occupied it in 1967 the economy of the West Bank has transformed from a mainly rural one dominated by structures of traditional village life into “an incorporated, dependent, and subordinated appendage of Israeli capitalism”. This shift saw the mass of the Palestinian population dispossessed of what little land they still controlled and proletarianised while at the same time there developed “a tiny layer of Palestinian capital that articulates Israeli rule and whose accumulation is dependent on that meditating position”.[24]

The Palestinian writer Toufic Haddad similarly writes about how the basis for the Palestinian Authority was constructed through an “interpermeation of interests” between Palestinian diaspora capitalists in the Arab states and domestic Palestinian capitalists in the West Bank, with the aim to “consolidate a strata of political and economic elites in the West Bank tied to the political economy of neoliberal state building”; meanwhile of course “the majority of Palestinian society remained disenfranchised politically and economically”.[25]

The focus that settler colonial theorists have on how settler colonies like Israel are motivated by a desire to eliminate Indigenous populations rather than exploit them also reinforces this tendency to ignore questions of class among the Palestinian population. As a number of scholars critical of settler colonial theory argue:

[T]he prevailing scholarly emphasis on the elimination of the native, at the expense of labor exploitation, not only is an analytical shortcoming but also obscures the link between the political, economic, and military violence of the occupation and the extraction of Palestinian labor-power by different means.[26]

It is true that since 1993 in particular Israel has sought to largely exclude the Palestinian population from as much of the Israeli workforce as possible, in order to marginalise their potential economic and political power. Historically though this was not always the case, and the integration of Palestinians into the Israeli economy was an important factor behind the First Intifada. The more important problem here however is that simply stating that Israel has no need for Palestinian workers and therefore issues of class and exploitation are irrelevant in the case of settler colonialism ignores how these issues are very relevant for the Palestinians who live and work in the broader region. Finally, the logic of elimination tells us nothing about who and how we can resist the undeniable genocide that Israel is carrying out. Only a Marxist assessment of the issues brings to the fore the exploited classes across the Middle East as a whole which are key to liberating Palestine.

Anti-colonial struggle?

Another feature of settler colonial theory is the inaccurate way it presents “anti-colonial” or “anti-imperialist” struggle. The academic founders of settler colonial theory were in fact deeply ambiguous about the possibility of struggle against settler colonialism, or at least anything anyone left-wing would recognise as struggle. So Patrick Wolfe argues:

In the settler colonial economy, it is not the colonist but the native who is superfluous. This means that the sanctions practically available to the native are ideological ones. In settler colonial formations, in order words, ideology has a higher systemic weighting – it looms larger, as it were – than in other colonial formations.[27]

Thus it is only on the ideological terrain that Palestinians can hope to perhaps disrupt settler colonialism, presumably by exploiting the contradiction between public endorsements of human rights, equality, etc. with the reality of oppression. As one critic explains, “Wolfe’s reversion to ideology as the level of struggle in the settler colony is a desperate move” that “would appear to suggest that what we might call ‘real conditions’ in the settler colony do not admit the possibility of other forms of struggle for the native”.[28]

More seriously minded settler colonial theorists are more likely to look towards military actions such as those carried out by Hamas in October 2023, Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, or at best armed struggle like that engaged in by the old Palestine Liberation Organization. While armed action against imperialist forces and the violent ruling classes of the region can hardly be ruled out by any movement seeking to transform the Middle East, to elevate this particular form of action is to drastically distort what it will take to liberate Palestine and indeed the broader region.

Imperialism and capitalism in the region is underpinned by multiple powerful ruling classes, both foreign and domestic, with substantial financial and military resources and a proven track record of unleashing violence against any serious signs of opposition. No armed force not connected to one or another of these ruling classes has the capacity to defeat such an extensive system of power and control. And those that are well funded and armed, such as the Saudi and Emirati militaries, do not wish to see imperialism defeated because they are part of it.

In this situation, Marxists look towards the potential power of a mass working-class movement as the only solution. The classic features of such a movement through history – grassroots workplace activism and organisation, general strikes, and eventually mass insurrections in major urban centres – places in it a unique position to challenge the ruling classes and states of the Middle East. And we have seen examples of exactly this kind of struggle in the region before. During the 1940s and ’50s there was a wave of mass working-class revolt in many Middle Eastern countries.

In Egypt an independent workers’ movement arose that challenged not just colonial rule but capitalist exploitation, culminating in a massive strike movement erupting in February 1946. The anti-Zionist Jewish socialist writer Tony Cliff captured some of the key features of this huge strike:

In Alexandria the students turned towards the workers and arranged a large demonstration together with them. A few days later – on the 21st. February, “Evacuation Day” – about 100,000 workers and students made a strike and demonstration in Cairo. The spirit of the demonstrators was clearly revealed in the fact that none of the traditional parties had any sway over them… The solidarity of Moslems, Christians and Jews was an oft-repeated slogans [sic] throughout the demonstrations. Sudanese students studying in Egypt who called for a common struggle against British imperialism were carried shoulder high.[29]

Cliff explains that the demonstrations and strikes were organised by a workers’ and students’ committee which was “democratically elected” and truly “representative of the masses”, whose “members were chosen in democratic elections from each faculty and trade union” and in “every quarter of Cario special local quarter committees were also elected” with worker activists in the “big foreign companies” having a “decisive influence on the direction of the movement”. In Alexandria, it was anti-Stalinist activists who had a majority on the city-wide workers’ and students’ committee.[30]

Such scenes were repeated in Iraq, which was shaken by huge protests and general strikes that fused together anti-colonial and class demands. In 1948 a mass urban rebellion erupted against the killing of student protesters, with striking oil workers in Kirkuk playing a key role in radicalising the movement. The rebellion was suppressed but followed by a new uprising in 1952. Even after a group of nationalist military officers took power in 1958, strikes continued and Communists could reportedly bring over 1 million people onto the streets in demonstrations.[31]

More recently the revival of strike action by key sections of workers was a crucial factor in the outbreak of the Arab Spring, and the lack of a sizeable socialist workers’ movement to build upon such action was key to its eventual defeat.[32]

The class basis of anti-colonial politics

The politics of settler colonial theory are not simply ill-thought-out ideas. If taken seriously as a guide to action they would be disastrous for building a movement that can actually challenge imperialism and capitalism.

In South Africa, the theory that Africans suffered from “internal colonisation” was developed by primarily white intellectuals around the South African Communist Party. They used the theory to justify the pro-capitalist strategy of the African National Congress, which sought to narrow the radicalism of African workers around a program of simply replacing the racist apartheid regime with a new capitalist government controlled by a Black elite. In the United States, Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and political scientist Charles V Hamilton used the theory that African Americans were a colony within the US to argue for building up a Black political power bloc. This ultimately primarily benefited the layer of Black mayors, congressmen and police chiefs who were elected to supposedly decolonise urban spaces. In Australia anti-colonial rhetoric is just as often used to argue for more Indigenous-owned businesses, NGOs and government bureaucracies as it is to argue for any genuine struggle against racism, let alone capitalism.

Throughout the twentieth century, we saw anti-colonial movements win across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. While socialists celebrated the end of direct colonial rule, we need to be clear that in none of these cases did anti-colonial revolutions lead to societies based on equality and justice. Instead new capitalist states were created, with continued exploitation and oppression the result.

Ironically the classless politics of anti-colonialism actually has a class basis. It represents the interests of all those social layers – middle-class intellectuals, state bureaucrats and aspiring politicians from oppressed backgrounds – who might oppose racism, or war or a particular national oppression but don’t want the capitalist system to end. Instead, they want a new nation-state or business or bureaucracy in which they or someone from their background are in control.

There are of course those on the left who adopt the politics of settler colonial theory but consider themselves to be fighting for something more radical than the examples raised above. But the problem is that the logic of anti-colonial politics inevitably leads towards pro-capitalist so-called solutions to the issues of racism and imperialism. Its very framing reinforces the idea that the key division in the world is different national groups rather than classes, and that the problems of the world are due to things external or secondary to capitalism, rather than the fundamental nature of the system itself.

Sai Englert, a socialist writer, argues that one of the benefits of settler colonial theory is that it can provide a framework for a struggle for liberation that can foster “unity across different sections of the Palestinian people”. But unity with whom and on what political basis? Englert’s Settler Colonialism: An Introduction discusses many examples of movements against national oppression, including in Palestine, but at no point even acknowledges, let alone discusses, the different class forces within them, opting for uncritical veneration instead.[33]

Many of the people protesting for Palestine today are doing so at least in part because of these anti-colonial ideas, which make sense as a starting point given the weakness of class struggle and the left. But if we are to begin to build the kinds of organisations we need to actually defeat capitalism and imperialism then as many people as possible need to go beyond the limits of these politics.

Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we’ve had all sorts of very radical, even revolutionary-sounding anti-racist and anti-imperialist theories: racial-capitalism, revolutionary black nationalism, dependency theory, third-worldism, Guevarism and so forth. But when put into practice they all ended in disaster. The uncritical championing of Indigenous nationalist movements by settler colonial theorists echoes the problems of third worldism that influenced much of the radical left in the second half of the twentieth century.

Faced with another century of brutal wars and vicious oppression we need clear Marxist politics that emphasises the necessity of confronting the underlying structures of capitalism through the immense potential power of the working class.


Ajl, Max 2023, “Logics of Elimination and Settler Colonialism: Decolonization or National Liberation?”, Middle East Critique, 32:2, pp.259–83.

Alexander, Anne 2003, “Daring for victory: Iraq in revolution 1946–1959”, International Socialism, 2:99, Summer.

Alexander, Anne 2022, Revolution is the Choice of the People. Crisis and Revolt in the Middle East and North Africa, Bookmarks.

Becke, Johannes 2018, “Dismantling the Villa in the Jungle: Matzpen, Zochrot, and the Whitening of Israel”, International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 21(6), pp.874–91.

Cliff, Tony 2011 [1946], The Problem of the Middle East (Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq), Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Davies, Jack 2023, “The World Turned Outside In: Settler Colonial Studies and Political Economy”, Historical Materialism, 31(2&3), January.

Davies, Jack, Muriam Haleh Davis, Martin Devecka, Robin Jones, Thomas Serres and Becker Sharif 2023, “Translators’ Introduction to The Palestinian and Jewish Working Class and Its Organisations 1918–1939 by Omar Talibi”, Critical Ethnic Studies Journal, 8(1), Minnesota University Press.

Englert, Sai 2020, “Settlers, Workers and the Logic of Accumulation by Dispossession”, Antipode: a Radical Journal of Geography, 52(6), July, pp.1647–66.

Englert, Sai 2022, Settler Colonialism: An Introduction, Pluto Press.

Greenstein, Tony 2019, “Why Israel is a Jewish, not a white supremacist state”, Al Jazeera 7 February.

Haddad, Toufic 2016, Palestine LTD.: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory, I.B Tauris.

Hanieh, Adam 2013, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, Haymarket Books.

Humphreys, Jordan 2021, “Capitalism, colonialism and class: A Marxist explanation of Indigenous oppression today”, Marxist Left Review, 21, Summer.

Humphreys, Jordan 2023, Indigenous Liberation & Socialism, Red Flag Books.

Kennard, Matt 2023, “The anti-imperialist movement that supports Palestinian liberation and runs part of the UK”, UK Declassified, 19 October.

Marshall, Phil 2023 [1989], Intifada: Zionism, imperialism and Palestinian resistance, Red Flag Books.

Mkokeli, Sam 2024, “South Africa’s Gaza stance threatens trade ties with Israel” Semafor, updated 31 January.

Piterberg, Gabriel and Lorenzo Veracini 2015, “Wakefield, Marx, and the world turned inside out”, Journal of Global History, 10(3), November, pp.457–78.

Rawoot, Ilham 2023, “South Africa’s perplexing relationship with Israel”, The New Arab, 11 December.

Surasky, Cecilie 2015, “Settler colonialism, white supremacy, and the ‘special relationship’ between the U.S. and Israel”, Jewish Voice for Peace, 24 February. colonialism-white-supremacy-and-the-special-relationship-between-the-u-s-and-israel/

Uidhir, Somhairle Mag 2024, “Paddy-Washing Genocide? The case for boycotting the White House”, Rebel News, 24 January.

Veracini, Lorenzo 2016, “Introduction: settler colonialism as a distinct mode of domination”, The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, Routledge.

Veracini, Lorenzo 2021, The World Turned Inside Out: Settler Colonialism as a Political Idea, Verso.

Wolfe, Patrick 1999, Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Wolfe, Patrick 2006, “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native”, Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), pp.387–409.

[1] See Humphreys 2021 and chapter 3 in Humphreys 2023.

[2] Hanieh 2013, pp.13-14.

[3] See Wolfe 2006 for a classic statement of his theory of the logic of elimination.

[4] See Davies 2023 and Ajl 2023; also Englert 2020 who is otherwise quite supportive of other aspects of settler colonial theory.

[5] See Veracini 2016.

[6] Piterberg and Veracini 2015, p.469 and Veracini 2021.

[7] Davies 2023.

[8] Alexander 2022, p.110.

[9] Becke 2018.

[10] Quotes from Ajl 2023, p.270.

[11] Ajl 2023, p.270.

[12] Greenstein 2019.

[13] Marshall 2023 [1989], pp.53–72.

[14] Surasky 2015.

[15] Surasky 2015.

[16] Kennard 2023.

[17] Uidhir 2024.

[18] Uidhir 2024.

[19] Rawoot 2023 and Mkokeli 2024.

[20] The following draws from Marshall 2023 [1989], pp.97–115.

[21] Quoted in Ajl 2023, p.274.

[22] Ajl 2023, p.275. Ajl’s insightful criticism of settler colonial theory is unfortunately marred by his campist politics, notably in his defence of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and even China and Russia; see pp.277–8 of the same essay.

[23] Hanieh 2013, p.174.

[24] Hanieh 2013, p.100.

[25] Haddad 2016, p.263.

[26] Davies et al. 2023.

[27] Wolfe 1999, p.3.

[28] Davies 2023.

[29] Cliff 2011 [1946], chapter 23.

[30] Cliff 2011 [1946], chapter 23.

[31] Alexander 2003.

[32] See chapter 9 in Alexander 2022 for a discussion of the revival of the workers’ movement before the Arab Spring.

[33] Englert 2022, p.13.

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