Introduction to "Waiting for the Massacre"

by S. Prasad

“Waiting for the Massacre” is a text that the Tunisian revolutionaries Lafif Lakhdar and Mustapha Khayati distributed in Jordan on the eve of the Black September massacre in 1970. It was published later that year in French in An-Nidhal, a small Tunisian Trotskyist journal. Tony Verlaan’s Create Situations group translated the text into English the following year, although it is unclear if this translation was ever published.1 The revised version of Verlaan’s translation below represents the first publication of the text in any language in over 50 years.

When this text was first published in Arabic on August 1st, 1970 Mustapha Khayati had just resigned from the Situationist International (SI) in order to join the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DPFLP). Khayati is best known as the main author of On The Poverty of Student Life and for his central role in the “Strasbourg Scandal,”2 which anticipated, and in some ways precipitated, the events of May 1968, of which Khayati played an active part.

For the situationists the path to May 1968 was set some years earlier. The SI embarked upon their “second phase” in late 1961. Ending their period of research into experimental art, the situationists anticipated that the new decade would see the reemergence of a revolutionary movement. To prepare for this, the problem of revolution would need to be profoundly reconceived for their time. This would entail recovering the lost history of the workers’ movement, clarifying misconceptions about revolution in the underdeveloped countries, and discovering possibilities and desires repressed by the modern world in order for a new idea of happiness to emerge. If the emphasis was largely placed on striving for theoretical coherence, this was in part because France was as yet largely untouched by the practical struggles then beginning to unfold elsewhere.

The situationists thus listened carefully for the early tremors that would herald the coming earthquake: the class struggles in Algeria, the civil war in the Congo, the riots in Watts, the student movements in California and Japan, and the wildcat strikes slowly spreading across Europe. In these struggles the SI saw “a mass of new practices that are seeking their theory.”3 The role of a revolutionary organization was “to not only justify… the insurgents, but to help elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search.”4

Khayati, who joined the SI in 1965, played a central role in this project. Khayati was the primary author of an “Address to Revolutionaries in Algeria and All Other Countries.” This was clandestinely distributed in Algeria and then published as a pamphlet in five languages. This was followed by a series of balance sheets on important contemporary struggles (Algeria, Vietnam, Palestine, Czechoslovakia), paying careful attention to the concrete situation, with its dynamic and limits.5

These studies of particular struggles were accompanied by his more theoretical essays published in the situationist journal, such as Setting Straight Some Popular Misconceptions About Revolutions in the Underdeveloped Countries.6 At the time of his resignation from the SI, Khayati was working on a text that  would later be completed by Rene Riesel and published as Preliminaries on Councils and Councilist Organizations, the situationists’ most complete statement on the theory of revolutionary organization7

“Those who were really opposed to Spanish fascism went to fight it. No one has yet gone off to fight ‘Yankee imperialism.’”8 This was Khayati’s stinging rebuke in 1967 to the western left’s token opposition, which “remains spectacular for everyone,” to the wars in Vietnam and Palestine. Two years later, he would do just that.

Mustapha Khayati resigned from the Situationist International in the midst of their 1969 Venice conference. This was the first gathering of the SI since May 1968, and it also turned out to be their last before the group's dissolution in 1972. In his letter of resignation, dated October 1, 1969, he states that:

“I feel a certain obligation to participate alongside the more radical elements of the revolutionary crisis currently taking shape in the Arab nations. Given my opposition — like that of the SI — to all forms of dual membership and infiltration (for the SI as for any revolutionary movement), I hereby tender my resignation.”9

Lafif Lakhdar is less well known in the English speaking world than his co-author, where he is primarily remembered for a pioneering study of political Islam published in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.10 But he was a writer of some stature in the Arab world.

Lakhdar was, like Khayati, a Tunisian revolutionary who found himself among the Palestinian fedayeen in Jordan. He had begun a career as a lawyer in Tunisia representing political dissidents until he himself came under scrutiny from the regime. He fled Tunisia in 1961 with help from the Algerian FLN and “spent nearly 20 years wandering the world using forged passports.”11 After participating in the Algerian Revolution, he became an advisor to Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella.12 He helped arrange a meeting in Algeria between Che Guevera and Abu Jihad of Fatah. He would have to flee the country in 1965 after Boumédiène deposed Ben Bella in a military coup.13 In 1968 he arrived in Amman as a guest of Yasser Arafat. The two shared an apartment so as to protect Lakhdar from Algeria intelligence operatives. But Lakhdar, like Khayati, soon found the revolutionary politics of the DPFLP, founded by Nayef Hawatmeh, more persuasive. “Hawatmeh argued that the only justification for forming a fighting force is to topple the Arab regimes…. He convinced me…”14 Lakhdar would later translate the Communist Manifesto into Arabic. "The first genuine translation," as he put it.15


The 1967 Six-Day war was a disaster for the states of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt and for the project of Arab Nationalism. The war led to the occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza, as well as the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. Millions of Palestinians flooded to refugee camps, particularly in Jordan, where Palestinians now made up a majority of the population.

But this defeat marked a turning point. It made clear that the emancipation of Palestine must be conquered by the Palestinians themselves. Palestinian exiles would no longer wait for the armies of Arab states to liberate Jerusalem; they would have to launch their own war.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was now for the first time led by fedayeen, particularly from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. As one of the first armed resistance groups, formed nearly a decade earlier, Fatah now had an immense amount of prestige. The charter of the PLO was rewritten at this time to embrace a strategy of armed struggle.

Armed resistance groups began to proliferate among Palestinians in exile. Out of the Arab Nationalist Movement emerged the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which would soon become famous for a series of spectacular airplane hijackings. The PFLP itself soon split, with the DPFLP branding itself as an even more extremist organization.16

With an influx of Palestinian refugees and armed revolutionary organizations, large sections of Jordan became ungovernable. Fedayeen used Jordan as a base to launch guerrilla attacks into Israel, with the inevitable reprisals improving the resistance’s moral and political authority. As a journalist put it, “[p]ower began to slip from the monarch into the hands of the myriad of Palestinian fighters who swaggered with their weapons through the streets of Amman, hung Marxist banners on mosques and began a campaign of hijackings and kidnappings. Palestinians spoke openly of taking over [Jordan] as part of Palestine.”17

Debord sums up the situation succinctly:

All the Palestinian organizations were armed and enjoyed in Jordan a situation of dual power, but the latter occurred exactly at the level of local conditions. All the ridiculousness of the impotent Arab states, divided, and accumulating bombast on their unity, found itself concentrated in the embryonic statist pseudo-apparatus which shared that part of the Jordanian territory which little by little had escaped the State of Hussein. A dual power can never last, however not one of the Palestinian organizations wanted to overthrow Hussein, and thus all of them renounced their sole slim change of winning, not even wishing to see that it was the last hour to risk everything: for each of them feared that the operation would only profit some rival organization and its Arab protector State. It was thus perfectly evident that Hussein would destroy the Palestinian organizations…. However the boukha was drawn, it had to be drunk.18

By the summer of 1970, tensions were at a boiling point. Violent clashes broke out periodically. But both sides hesitated. On September 6, the PFLP simultaneously hijacked four international flights, landing three of them at an abandoned airfield in Jordan, where they were blown up in front of the world’s media. This pushed the situation past the point of no return. The Kingdom of Jordan was soon engulfed in a civil war between its armed forces and Palestinian fedayeen. Thousands of Palestinians were killed or expelled in the massacre, and the PLO was driven out of Jordan. These events are often remembered as Black September.19

It was into this furnace, a kingdom in the midst of a creeping civil war, that Khayati ventured. “At the heart of [the DPFLP],” Khayati had, according to Debord, “thought he could discern a revolutionary proletarian fraction…. [But t]he proletarian fraction of the DPFLP, and even the least expression of its autonomous perspectives, had only existed in the well intentioned imagination of Khayati during his tenure on the management committee of this under-developed leftist misery.” Khayati thus found himself in “a nearly desperate position but one into which he had put himself.”20

Debord remarks somewhere that of the “clandestinity of private life” we “possess nothing but pitiful documents.”21 There is little available documentation of the texture of Khayati’s time among the Palestinian fedayeen.22 As is often the case with the adventures of former situationists, we are left to rely largely on Debord’s account.

Debord’s judgment of this adventure and the writing that resulted from it was harsh. This is first attested to in “Remarks on the SI Today,” a document circulated within the SI at the time:

At Venice, so as to make known the haughty reasons he had for making this choice, and for making it thus, Mustapha expounded an analysis of the possible revolutionary developments in Jordan and described the subjective necessity he felt to participate in this struggle. Immediately upon his arrival in Jordan (from which he had returned precisely at the moment of his declarations in Venice), he discovered -- according to his own recent account -- that there wasn't any such perspective! In an organization (the DPFLP) of which he is a formal member and of which he disapproves on at least several points, he didn't lead any political struggles….23

Debord picks up this thread in “Notes toward a history of the SI, 1969-1971,” part of a “public circular” on the dissolution of the SI:

Since the revolutionary Palestinians elements had merited Khayati’s adhesion, they merited also that he support before them a minimum perspective, and that he put them on their guard. He contented himself with returning to Europe gravely deceived, before the inevitable repression. Undoubtedly he has brought out since, on the 1st of August 1970, in company with Lafif Lakhdar, twenty-four theses, moreover very insufficient, entitled “Waiting for the Massacre.”24 But these theses, published in the trotskyist journal An-Nidhal, were in fact written after the massacre, which had begun before the summer and had only to be completed by the autumn.25

What concerns Debord is how Khayati conducted himself as a revolutionary during his excursion. He found himself unsure of his footing, unable to intervene in the “desperate situation,” even as he began to see it clearly. Khayati resembled Saint-Just at the start of Thermidor, stunned into silence by the rush of events.

To make matters worse, in Debord’s estimation, Khayati’s activity within the DPFLP was inconsistent with the theory of revolutionary organization that Khayati himself had contributed significantly to developing. It is this gap between ideas and activity, between what one thinks and how one lives, that Debord found unacceptable.

All of this is to say that Debord’s criticism seems aimed more at Khayati’s activity than his analysis. If Khayati had initially misread the moment, he was nonetheless compelled to face with sober senses the actual conditions he encountered upon his arrival. Debord confirms in private correspondence that when Khayati returned to Europe, the theoretical disagreements between them about the situation had become negligible.26

If the text appeared “insufficient” to Debord it would appear to be because it did not succeed as an intervention. The only specific criticism he makes is about timing. The theses simply appear too late to have an impact on the unfolding of events.27

If this text has not vanished into total obscurity, abandoned only to the criticism of mice, it is because Debord’s criticism has, in a sense, preserved it for posterity. This is what makes encountering the text today, in a new situation and with new tasks, possible. We are thus able to read it with fresh eyes unburdened by the particular concerns of its contemporary critics.

Despite its faults, Khayati and Lakhdar’s theses are an attempt to grapple with the dynamic and limits of an actual struggle. In this sense, they resemble many of the texts Khayati wrote as a situationist. Moreover, it is the only text, at least that we are aware of, written on the Palestinian movement from an ultra-left perspective by people who actually participated in the resistance.

If Khayati had set out to discover a deep well of proletarian self-activity and self-organization within the armed resistance, then this clearly did not pan out. But with hindsight it is harder to fault him on this. A similar attitude of wishful-thinking often reappears within the ultra-left’s writing on the matter. Aufheben’s otherwise remarkable essay on the intifada seems to suggest that every apparent historic blunder on the part of the PLO was actually driven by an excess of proletarian self-activity.28 Consider also the immense emphasis on proletarian self-activity and initiative that characterizes Midnight Notes’ writing on Palestine and the Middle East. "Waiting for the Massacre" does not have the abstract distance of these groups and Khayati can at least be credited with having the courage of his convictions and putting his hypothesis to the test.

Moreover, the text turned out to be fairly prescient. Khayati and Lakhdar were able to see clearly the traps awaiting the Palestinian resistance on the other side of the “real defeat” of 1970: on the one hand, the temptations of spectacular terrorism and, on the other, the bloody labyrinth of geopolitical conflicts the PLO would soon be engulfed in. The former is exemplified by the Black September organization and the latter by the long civil war in Lebanon.

But what is more remarkable is the text’s anticipation of both the intifada and the Oslo Accords.  In that sense it has aged well. Khayati and Lakhdar seem to suggest an historic crossroads. One possible route follows the line of a peace process that leads to a hollowed-out Palestinian state on the West Bank administered by Fatah. The other route would be the storming onto the stage of history of the Palestinian proletariat in the form of a mass self-organized uprising of everyday Palestinians assisted by the rank and file of the existing armed resistance organizations. What the authors did not anticipate was that both routes would cross each other. Both of the events they predicted would happen, although much later and not quite how they expected. As it would turn out, a mass uprising, an intifada, was a necessary prerequisite for a doomed peace process. But none of this would come to pass until nearly two decades later. It is worth remarking that if Khayati and Lakhdar thought that a Fatah-led Palestinian state “worthy of its name” would be a disaster, the actual Palestinian Authority, administered by a senile Fatah and torn apart by settlements, is a much more immense disaster than they could have anticipated at the time.

Following the shipwreck in Amman, Lakhdar and Khayati returned to Paris. There they collaborated on Critique et Autocritique de la Résistance Palestinienne, a book-length reflection on Black September which was rejected by their publisher Editions de Minuit for being “too extreme.” The two regrouped in Beirut where they would publish one issue of Sultat al-Majalis, a situationist-influenced council communist magazine, before the outbreak of civil war there again sent them into exile. Back in Paris, they would co-author the manifesto Adresse aux prolétaires et aux jeunes révolutionnaires arabes et israéliens contre la guerre et pour la révolution prolétarienne. The manifesto, developed by a gathering of Arab and Israeli revolutionaries on May 1st, 1976 in Paris, is thought to be the first revolutionary address published jointly by Arabs and Israelis. The address ends with a call for proletarian revolution throughout the Middle East: “the only program worthy of the Arab and Israeli proletariat and their allies is that of the destruction of the capitalist order and the construction, on its ruins, of a revolutionary society where the total liberation of each individual is the condition for the total liberation of all.”