When I was a child I would sometimes imagine alternative histories, spinning out what could have happened if this or that decisive battle had gone the other way. In one of them the Mongols overrun most of Europe in the mid-13th century and successfully integrate this region into their empire for a while. This gives Islamic forces the opportunity to reconquer all of Iberia and take over most of Italy. I reasoned that this development, with Iberia part of the Muslim world again for a long time, would result in no voyages from Western Europe to the New World taking place in the 15th and 16th centuries. I had the Norse establish a successful settlement in North America at some point, and later, when firearms spread, Native Americans get them via this connection at around the same time as Eurasians. At the time I believed that superior firepower was the main factor in explaining the success of the European conquest of the New World, so in this alternative world it never takes place, and indigenous societies continue to occupy the greater part of the Americas.
I was no little radical. I was a somewhat precocious middle class boy with absolutely no clue about what the world was like for less privileged people. My political radicalisation began later, in my teens, when I discovered libertarian marxist, anarchist and feminist theory and came into contact with the “autonomous left” in West Germany. Although I would say that at this point I still had pretty much no clue about the real world. The ideology I was exposed to at home was cosmopolitan, social democratic, liberal feminist, with a dash of cultural conservatism. My dad was a physicist and I was a firm believer in science and “progress” and could not imagine technological and social progress not taking place at the same rate and in the same way in any possible world. A charitable interpretation would be that at least I didn’t believe in the innate superior rationality of Westerners… I also didn’t like Christianity much, particularly not the Catholic kind (I grew up in very Catholic Bavaria, in the south of Germany) and so I quite enjoyed the idea of Muslim forces occupying Rome and generally the prospect of Christianity “becoming history”. I didn’t know anything about Islam or Arab history at the time and if you would have quizzed me I would surely have produced some of the usual racist clichés about Islam and Arabs.
There is a connection between these early historical fantasies of mine and my later interest in histories and prehistories of Africa, Asia and the Americas, World Systems Theory, non-eurocentric approaches to the question of the “Rise of the West”, the history of slavery, the “Columbian Exchange”, colonialism and anti-colonialism, post-colonial studies and (Marxist, feminist) critiques of it…
Like many well-meaning privileged people from rich countries, I went through a phase of “thirdworldism” which combined a beginning awareness of the injustice and inequality in the economic, political, cultural… relations between different parts of the world on the one hand, with an exoticising fascination with, a romanticisation and idealisation of, distant and different places and peoples on the other.
There was no definite end to this phase, just a waking up to the fact that idealisation and demonisation are two sides of the same coin, and then a progressive working through of my feelings, perceptions and positions concerning imperialism, colonialism, racism etc.
I still sometimes imagine alternative histories. Partly it’s Weltflucht, same as back when I was a kid, and partly it’s a way of engaging with the present.
Let me start with a historical fantasy that I at least find very pleasant.
I try to imagine a world where fascism would not have come to power anywhere at all in the first half of the 20th century and therefore the destruction of European Jewry would never have taken place. Zionism in general, even more so the specific territorial Zionist current that envisioned a Jewish national home in Palestine, would have remained a minor political current. There would have been a small expansion of the Yishuv, but an actual Jewish state in Palestine would never have been founded. Jews would have remained part of European societies and continued their push towards full emancipation and would eventually have reached this goal. Jewish and Christian minorities in the Muslim world would also have gradually emerged from their traditional status of accepted but inferior subjects of Muslim rulers to claim the role of citizens with equal rights. In this world, there would never have been major conflict between Palestinians and Jews. There would have been successful struggles for emancipation within the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman state would have been transformed into a more socially just multicultural society in which Palestinian Arab people could feel at home.
I really can’t imagine a complete defeat of fascism without significant victories for socialist and feminist movements, and this again I can’t imagine without the history of the worker’s movement taking a different direction, a path not leading to the formation of new ruling classes in despotic state capitalist societies such as Leninist Russia or Maoist China, but towards something else, to less authoritarian, more truly socialist societies and movements. I also can’t imagine a defeat of fascism without a major decline in the influence of nationalism as an ideological force. This, together with a stronger influence of workers’, women’s, “racial” minorities’, lower castes’, peasants’… grassroots organising worldwide would have meant that decolonisation would have taken a very different path, not one leading to formally independent new nation states held in dependence by integration into a global capitalist economic system and imperialist wars, or threats of war, and run by more or less authoritarian and cleptocratic nationalist elites, but to something else. A more just system of international trade would have developed. In many regions, key industries would have been socialised and come under actual popular control. Multi-national, multi-ethnic movements for social justice would have evolved to challenge the segmentation of the working classes, practice international solidarity and extract major concessions from ruling capitalist classes worldwide. Some colonial territories would not have become independent states at all, but remained connected to their former colonial “motherlands”, with coordinated social movements in both core and periphery pushing for full citizenship and human dignity for the colonised, equal rights and equal economic opportunities for all citizens irrespective of their origin. Picture for a moment, just to exercise the capacities of your utopian imagination, a multiethnic libertarian socialist French-West-African federation, for example, with equality in infrastructure, living standards and citizen’s rights, from Abidjan to Lille.
Why not dream more audaciously? Maybe by now, in this alternative reality, we would all be living in a global but decentralised grassroots-democratic socialist polity in which religion would have become quite unimportant and ethnicity, though existent, would play a minor role in social relations.
Taking a step back from this vision, I ask myself if an alternative development path for Palestine would have been possible after Nazism, the Shoah, the exclusion of Jewish refugees from virtually everywhere, the waves of immigration to Palestine in the forties and the UN partition plan of 1947. Is the development of a less antagonistic relationship between Jews and Arabs even a historical possibility, or was Israel-Palestine locked into a certain development path by the conditions of its emergence?
I don’t know enough about the history of Israel-Palestine, the whole region, all the economics and geopolitics involved, to give an answer. I would like to believe that another Israel would have been possible, maybe even still is possible, that an Arab Jewish confederation in Palestine along the lines of what Arendt imagined might have been possible, etc, but I am not so sure.
Really, I am not only against all forms of nationalism and patriotism, but against the whole idea of the nation, against the nation state, any kind of nation building, as well as the foregrounding of ethnicity, what Paul Gilroy calls “ethnic absolutism”, and all forms of organised religion. I have no more (and no less) sympathy for the Zionist project than for any other nation building project.
But in a world of differential access and closed borders, and in the complete absence of a truly socialist movement that could have challenged the logic of nation states (with the most powerful state of the nominally socialist camp despotically ruled by a Jew-hating psychopath who would embark on a murderous antisemitic purge in early 1948), the construction of a new Jewish nation state was simply common sense and migrating there was one of the few options many surviving European Jews (and later Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) had, sometimes the only option.
That of course doesn’t make the pretence that Palestine was “a land without people” any better. If there were any justice in history, which normally there isn’t, it should have been expropriated formerly German territory that would have formed the territorial basis of a new Jewish homeland. If there were any justice in history, this new Jewish state would have received massive reparations payments from Germany, and from all states that closed their borders to Jewish refugees during the Nazi years, or at least severely restricted Jewish immigration during that period. Which as far as I know means pretty much all independent states on the planet at that time, with the exception of the Dominican Republic and China.
To be continued…