​“NGOization” of the Palestinian Left, Dr. Adel Samara, Occupied Palestine

This article was published in my book: Imprisoned Ideas, 1998 p.p. 131-136


It is my hope that this article will initiate a debate concerning the reasons underlying the deterioration of the Palestinian Left (PL), in both the organizational and theoretical dimensions, as well as in its level of militancy. While the article will concentrate on the Palestinian Marxist Left (PML)-composed mainly of the two relatively large fronts- the PFLP and the DFLP- in some places it will deal with the Palestinian communist party (PCP), now known as the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP), mainly for purpose of comparison.

The NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) are western-inspired organizations, most of them created, related, guided and directly financed by various foreign governments. Accordingly, they have been assigned a definite task: to enable the capitalist regimes of the center to penetrate the social fabric of the periphery with a benign and humanitarian face. In the long run, this new face might well replace, and will certainly complement, that of the orientalists and anthropologists who preceded them as agents of Western penetration. On the other hand, some of the NGO’s are supported by Christian, progressive, or humanitarian foundations, and do in fact extend genuine assistance to the oppressed societies of the periphery.

NGO’s were introduced into Palestinian society some 20 years ago. Most of them maintained some sort of connection with the PCP, which the only quasi-legal party in the Occupied Territories [as opposed to the other factions, including the leftist fronts]. Most of the staff of
the NGO’s were Westernized liberal intellectuals who had been leftists when they were university students, and were thus able to serve as a mediating group between PCP and the various types of Western-linked NGO’s.

According to my experience in both fronts of the Palestinian left, a rather low level of education about Marxism prevails in them. Thus the liberal intellectuals, with their relatively high level of academic attainments, were easily able to “infiltrate” these organizations, and to assume positions of ideological leadership in them. The local left fell into an inferiority complex before the supposed intellectual attainments of these liberal Westernized intellectuals, the intellectual comprador.

Reasons Underlying the Organizational

Deterioration of the Left

The Oslo Accords, which constitute a program for the liquidation of the Palestinian national question in all its forms, has revealed the weakness if the Left. What are the reasons and forms of the Left’s weakness?.

Low Level of Theoretical Education

The Palestinian Left started as a current of the Palestinian resistance movement. It applied Marxist discourse and rhetoric to the question of Palestinian national liberation, but it always suffered from fatal weakness on the theoretical-educational level. Those who had an adequate level of Marxist education were concentrated among the high-ranking cadre alone, and even this “elite’ was not really educated in depth about Marxism.

The educational programs of the left were poor, concentrating on the question of national liberation, and thus, ideological differences between members of leftist and rightist organizations of the Palestinian nationalist movement were not emphasized. The fact that members of the PML

considered themselves socialists did indeed make some difference, and was taken as a kind of moral obligation to act better than the others. But belief alone is not enough. It needs a proper level of consciousness and theoretical education if it is to bear fruit- and these were largely absent.

An Ideological Dependent Left

The PML grew out of organizations which were never part and parcel of the traditional pro-Soviet communist parties, and were even critical of the Soviet relationship to the progressive Arab bourgeois regimes [such as United Arab Republic and Syria]. However, this left ended up
competing with the PCP for acceptance and patronage by the Soviet Union.

Both Palestinian leftist currents continued to praise perestroika till the very last minute of Gorbachev’s fall from power, failing to see both the huge flaws in the Russian form of socialism as well as the bourgeois class nature of the nomenclature there. The effects of these weaknesses became clear after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when large portions of the Left began marketing the Western capitalist version of democracy. The most common self-description in the current Left literature is “the democratic forces” – a term so broad it is devoid of content.

The Failure to Grasp the Arab National Dimension

The PML was born in the period following the defeat of 1967. It was a period when the Palestinian and Arab masses were looking for a radical alternative to both the traditional nationalist and traditional Communist organizations. The Palestinian masses were eager to begin
struggling against the total occupation of their country, and thus the PML had a genuine opportunity to win popular support.

However, the 1967 war represented a defeat for the progressive Arab nationalist bourgeois regimes who, as a consequence, entirely abandoned Arab nationalism, and adopted the same line as the local, (iqlimi) comprador [local business people with ties to Western capitalists] and dependent regimes. The PML considered the defeat of the progressive bourgeois nationalist regimes as if it heralded the disappearance of Arab nationalism itself. They failed to differentiate
between the nationalism of the local (Iqlimi) and the comprador bourgeois and that of the Arab popular masses which is progressive and opposed capitalism, and since it strives for real development and that will benefit the people as a whole and not just a tiny layer at the
top-can be considered socialist.

These deficiencies in the theoretical analysis prevalent in the organizations of the PML led to a focus on the Palestinian (Iqlimi) dimention of the struggle, and a building of the PML’s alliance with Arab regimes and a lack of attention to the Arab popular masses. Thus, the difference between them and the right-wing Palestinian leadership under Arafat became blurred.

Following the Oslo Accord, the left found itself without the support of the Arab masses and the leftist organizations in the Arab World, which it had ignored for a long time due to its concentration on the narrow (Iqlimi) dimension- believing the PML that the limited force on
which it was concentrated was unable to confront the imperialist-Zionist -Arab comprador front. Thus, the PML was prepared to Internalize the Defeat,

Financing the left

In terms of its use of financial resources, the Palestinian left tended to behave exactly like the bourgeois leadership of the P.L.O: instead of investing the funds received via NGO’s from foreign (mostly European) donors in productive cooperatives that contribute to the building of the economic infrastructure, to grass-roots organizations, and to its own economic self-sufficiency – the left acted in a charitable manner. Thus, when the Oslo Accords were signed and the bourgeois leadership of the P.L.O cut off its subsidies to the leftist opposition (PML), and blocked donations via the NGO’s, it was deprived of any economic base.

But, soon this left decided to adapt according to the demands and conditions of the donors, a step of concession and compromise which opened the financial tap again.

However, the PCP (in its current incarnation as the PPP) found itself in a more comfortable position. As opposed to the PML, it had invested large amounts of donations from received the West via the NGO’s to build up its own economic infrastructure in a network of NGO’s. One
could say that it has already reached the stage of becoming an “NGO’s party”.

Thus, the PML’s ideological and economic weaknesses rendered to unable effectively confront the Oslo Accords and failed to mobilize the masses against the Accords. It failed to mobilize even its own supporters. It lost membership even among its revolutionary cadre.

No Strategy

Three years after Madrid, and Two years after Oslo, the PML still has not put forward any clear analysis, position or program for the new era, especially as regards the two main levels of political and social action facing the society:

A. It has not clarified its position towards the Self-Rule Authorities, conventionally known as the PA (Palestinian Authority). On the one hand, it rejects Oslo, but on the other, it is dealing with
its infant, the PA. I am referring to the fact that some PML politburo members who had been based in Damascus moved to Gaza and Jericho to work for this authority.

B. It has failed to elaborate its own social program regarding groups  as peasants, workers, and women. Most of its activities had been conducted through NGO’s, permeated with an office-type mentality, of extremely limited significance from a political organizing point of view, absolutely severed from the masses and hardly different from the politics of those who are supporting Oslo.

The PML seems to be retaining the positions towards the PLO leadership that it developed in the pre-Madrid era. There is no understanding that the new developments render the PLO leadership part and parcel of Palestinian comprador capitalism, which is part of world capitalism in general since it is world capital which imposed this settlement. In accepting the settlement, the PLO became the mother of one class, rather than the mother of the whole people. The left opposition is using obsolete weapons in a new battle field, which demands new and improved weapons.

Briefly speaking, the PML lacks a leadership capable of setting policy to the daily life of its members and that of the masses: should they accept jobs with the PA or not; should individuals in the diaspora apply to return to the self-rule areas or not; should the PML participate in the elections; should the PML remain in organizational alliance with the right wing in the framework of trade unions, writer’s unions, etc.- when that right wing has become the openly
capitalist wing?

Not a Party, or Even a Grass-Roots Organisation, but an NGO

Another reason for the failure of the Left is to be sought in its failure to master the relationship between the party and the NGO’s. A party is a social, political, and ideological organized force which represents the interests and ambitions of a class and/or a combination of classes. Generally, they profess both to themselves and to the public that their program- the program of the class and /or classes which they represent- will effectively serve the interests of most of
the society. In carrying out their tasks, parties, especially those representing popular classes, create grass-roots organizations as their network in the community. The grass-roots, community-based, organizations are the mediator between the party and the NGO’s. The party is interesting in keeping the grass-roots organizations functioning, and the NGO’s find that they can only fulfill their mission by maintaining a connection with the grassroots organizations.

What happened in the Occupied Territories is that the PML failed to create grass-roots organizations. Moreover, the parties and fronts increasingly empty themselves of content and organize their political activities through the framework of the NGO’s identified with them. This degradation is only possible because the Marxism of this left is a political one, and it never deepened and developed educationally and theoretically. This is what happened to the PCP (now the PPP) and the PML are heading in the same direction. This process and its implications are worthy of attention. The mostly foreign, non-Palestinian donors, started with rather flexible standards for their recipients, until these organizations grew and became dependent on their support to pay office rent, salaries of employees, budgets for projects, etc. Then the donors began suggesting projects such as joint Palestinian-Israeli activities. The Palestinians adjusted themselves and their organizations to the wishes and aims of their donors. Gradually, but
relentlessly, the NGO’s put themselves in the direct service of their donors’ agenda. So what remains of their Palestinian-ness? nothing. Thus the foreign-supported NGO’s destroyed not only the political organizations (parties and factions), but also the grass-roots organizations on whom the NGO’s were dependent in order to be able to carry out any positive activity.

The use of the concepts of “civil society” and “civil association” played a role as well. Many leftists thought that the associations and institutions of “civil society” could replace the political party. They appeared to believe in, and act on, the notion that we, the Palestinians, were embarking on a transition to democracy in which the institutions of “civil society” would rule, and eliminate the need for parties organized as revolutionary formations. But those who are
marketing the notions of “civil society” and bourgeois democracy fail to see that those notions are mere illusions in conditions of underdevelopment. If development is blocked, democracy will be blocked as well.


The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Kana’an’s Editorial Board.