Palestinian Resistance and the Crisis of Liberal Humanism

Yanis Iqbal, Orinoco Tribune November 30, 2023 —

Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, launched by Hamas on October 7, 2023, was a huge blow to the settler-colonial state of Israel: Al-Qassam Brigades captured 20 settlements and 11 military sites in merely a few hours. The attacks on Israeli civilian and military outposts destroyed the narcissistic sense of security associated with the carefully orchestrated narratives of Zionist dominance, surveillance and intelligence. In the words of Saree Makdisi, the breakout “smashed, hopefully once and for all, the very idea that the Palestinians can just be ignored, talked to, or talked about rather than talking for and representing themselves, their interests and their rights.” Earlier, it was Palestinians who had to explain their presence and prove their humanity. Now, it is they are setting the contours of the narrative. That’s why Zionists are terrified.

Unqualified solidarity with the anti-colonial violence of the Palestinian resistance has been hindered by liberal humanism, a bourgeois ideology that uses abstract slogans of peace to accelerate the genocide of Palestinians. There are two components in this ideology. First, the supreme value of human life is proclaimed as an unproblematic moral statement, which everyone has to support. While liberal humanists may admit that the Israeli occupation has given rise to Palestinian violence, they remain adamant that the death of individuals can never be justified. Judith Butler, for instance, criticizes those who blame Zionist apartheid for contemporary violence, saying that “nothing should exonerate Hamas from responsibility for the hideous killings they have perpetrated”.

In the above conception, violence is conceived as an infringement of the individual human body, whose sanctity is guaranteed by an unquestionable morality. The physiological and juridical body is innately exposed to physical, psychological and moral persecution. This kind of body has no positive project; it is entirely defined by its vulnerability to attacks, which requires protection. Christopher Caudwell traces this ethical ideology to the systemic logic of the capitalist economy. In the struggle against feudal fetters, the bourgeoisie saw freedom as the abolition of social organization, as the ability of every individual to pursue his own affairs and interests. This is articulated “in the absolute character of bourgeois property together with its complete alienability.”

On the ideological terrain, this gives rise to the “bourgeois dream – freedom as the absolute elimination of social relations,” by which is meant the absence of any restraint on the ownership, acquisition and alienation of private property. Here, private property isn’t considered as a social restraint that should be abolished, as the bourgeois project is inevitably bound to its particularistic interests. When assembled into ethics, the bourgeois dream translates into ultra-individualist pacifism, wherein the purity of the soul has to be guarded from the “heinous guilt” of the “sin” that is violence. Caudwell calls this “spiritual laissez-faire,” which uses the commercial mentality of capitalists – its concern with economic status – to proclaim the right of remaining preoccupied with one’s own soul.

When liberal humanists talk about mushy-mushy sentiments of individual human life, it is crucial to ask whether such an abstraction even exists in the horrors of Israeli barbarism. On one side, we have settlers, whose material security is guaranteed by an authoritarian state apparatus. On the other side, we have natives, whose wretchedness is maintained through incessant violence. In this scenario, I ask you: where is the pristine divinity that you label as “human life”? I can only see the all-too onerous divides constructed by Zionist settler-colonialism. Preaching a higher moral reconciliation beyond these divides, trying to organize a peaceful dialogue between two completely antagonistic camps, is a pathetic attempt that is bound to fail. In the open-air concentration camp that is Gaza, it is criminal to think that there is an ever-present and ready-at-hand reserve of morality that can calm the clamor of reality. We have to dive into reality, into its thundering materiality, if we want to shoulder the global responsibility of solidarity that has been forced upon us by the Palestinian resistance.

When an interviewer told Ghassan Kanafani that it would be better for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) “to stop the war to stop the death,” Kanafani said, “Maybe to you, not to us. To us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights; these are something as essential as life itself.” By absolutizing life, liberal humanists ignore how such a life doesn’t exist in a settler-colonial society. The boundary between life and death is not clear-cut. Huey P. Newton said, “I tell the comrades you can only die once, so do not die a thousand times worrying about it.” Liberal humanists ignore how death already walks among the Palestinians. This allows them to construe life as a personal capacity, as a possibility, that can be realized through a dialogue between the colonizer and the colonized. For the colonized, life is never a possibility. Colonialism is the violent closure of possibilities for the colonized. In the words of Mehdi Amel: “It…became impossible to define the structure of the colonized countries’ specific trajectories of becoming except within the colonial relation. What was possible before this relation became impossible after. This is what is novel in the structure of these countries’ history.”

Kanafani dispels the naive hope of humanistic possibility in the colonial context, starkly portraying the inhuman impossibility of peace talks between Israel and Palestine as “a conversation between the sword and the neck”. There is no mention here of the personal, biographical details of an abstract human life; they are replaced by impersonal metaphors. Why so? Because the liberal focus on human life conveys an ambience of integrity and security in a situation that is marked by disorder and destruction. By preserving the edifice of individual, non-violent agency, liberal humanism says that violence is optional, it is a matter of condonation or denunciation. Kanafani explodes this pious optimism by depicting Zionism as a structurally violent tool that is indifferent to our subjective feelings. Between the sword and the neck, there lies no other possibility than death.

The elision of the historical depth of Zionist violence is a core component of liberal humanism. Slavoj Žižek denounced the “barbarism” of Hamas by writing that the choice is not between Palestinian anti-colonial violence and Zionist settler-colonial violence but “between fundamentalists and all those who still believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence”. The ruse of humanist possibility allows him to frame violence as a simplistic choice, whereas the toothless policy of dialogue comes off as the superior, more complex option. According to Joseph Stalin: “the Communists regard the substitution of one social system for another, not simply as a spontaneous and peaceful process, but as a complicated, long and violent process.” Here, the order of valuation is reversed. It is violence which is accorded the dignity of historical complexity. It is liberal humanism which is faulted for uncritically regarding the peacefulness of human life as an immediate, incontrovertible fact.

Reading Žižek, one is reminded of people whom Vladimir Lenin called the “spineless hangers-on of the bourgeoisie with intellectualist pretensions”. These “tyrannized, shocked and scared” intellectuals “have been flung into consternation at the sight of this unprecedentedly acute class struggle, have burst into tears, forgotten all their premises and demand that we perform the impossible, that we socialists achieve complete victory without fighting against the exploiters and without suppressing their resistance.” Decolonization is imagined as a peaceful project that can be “introduced” into the settler-colonial society. Liberal humanists forget how decolonization is forged in the intensity of national liberation, in “the struggles, the exploiters’ gnashing of teeth, or their diverse attempts to preserve the old order, or smuggle it back through the window”. What accounts for this ignorance? It can be traced to the liberal humanist delusion that a higher unity might emerge from the Zionist machine, that there is an element that might immediately unify the colonial compartments, that there is a humanist sensibility that lies hidden beneath colonialism. There is no such sensibility. Colonial violence has to be broken.

Instead of framing resistance in terms of the individual metric of human life, we have to take recourse to discourses that stress the concrete realities of colonized society. By inflating human life into a mythical capacity, liberal humanism paradoxically reveals a fundamental disregard for the human realities present in concrete societies. In order to avoid this extra-human concept, we must begin from the anti-colonial struggle. Liberal humanists begin with spiritual wishes for peace, attempting to convince people of an ideal method of resistance that will involve the least amount of death and suffering. Marxism doesn’t have any place for such a higher level of reconciliation. Lenin notes that Marxists appraise resistance “according to the class antagonisms and the class struggle which find expression in millions of facts of daily life.” Freedom is not a ready-made skill that can be invoked “in an atmosphere of cajoling and persuasion, in a school of mealy sermons or didactic declamations”. Rather, it is formed in the “school of life and struggle,” wherein the interests of the colonizers are exposed to the counter-interests of the colonized. Lenin puts it expressively:

“The proletariat must do its learning in the struggle, and stubborn, desperate struggle in earnest is the only real teacher. The greater the extremes of the exploiters’ resistance, the more vigorously, firmly, ruthlessly and successfully will they be suppressed by the exploited. The more varied the exploiters’ attempts to uphold the old, the sooner will the proletariat learn to ferret out its enemies from their last nook and corner, to pull up the roots of their domination, and cut the very ground which could (and had to) breed wage-slavery, mass poverty and the profiteering and effrontery of the money-bags.”

In a colonial situation, resistance is evaluated not according to the ethical ideology of human life but according to the contribution it makes to the opening of historical possibilities. Amilcar Cabral notes, “Resistance is the following: to destroy one thing for the sake of constructing another thing.” This terse statement is instructive because liberal humanists think of colonialism as a malleable arrangement that can be re-jigged to allow for a better outcome. Cabral brooks none of this. He identifies the inertia of colonialism that has to be destroyed, not merely reformed, to emancipate the colonized. It is because liberal humanists think that the possibility for life remains intact under colonialism that they are unable to appreciate the fight for such a life waged by the colonized. That’s why it is so clarifying to read Cabral’s searing words on the objective of national liberation:

“At the end of the day, we want the following: concrete and equal possibilities for any child of our land, man or woman, to advance as a human being, to give all of his or her capacity, to develop his or her body and spirit, in order to be a man or a woman at the height of his or her actual ability. We have to destroy everything that would be against this in our land, comrades. Step by step, one by one if it be necessary – but we have to destroy in order to construct a new life…our work is to destroy, in our resistance, whatever makes dogs of our people – men or women – so as to allow us to advance, to grow, to rise up like the flowers of our land, whatever can make our people valued human beings.”


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