OK comrades, this Libya thing is out of hand. Confusion reigns among too much of the left; the best of intentions are made ridiculous and I barely hear a peep about what ought to be at the core of our analysis – the Libyan working class. I don’t claim any more insight or knowledge into the situation than anyone else, though I am sure I know a lot less than some, including some that I disagree with sharply. I haven’t held on every word of the debate, but I’ve spent more than my share of time reading and listening to them, such as they are as well as keeping up on the complicated, contradictory news from the country itself. So I suppose I have as much right to speak on the topic as everyone else shooting off their mouth at the moment.
I’ll confine mine self to the general since that is all I am comfortable with, my understanding of the specific being rather limited (like many of those who comment). I begin thinking about Libya like I begin thinking about most situations around the world; by thinking about what is best for the Libyan working class, what is in their interests both immediately and more long term, historic interests.
Those historic interests are in play, however, as the risings throughout the region attest. Those interests, which are not at all separate from more pressing interests, include workers’ democracy and the exercise of workers’ power- the socialist transformation of Libya and of the region (I’m a socialist, so I just can’t help thinking about what might point in that direction). If the future is up for grabs currently with most of the old regimes in the region on a serious wobble, than I think it only right, and necessary, that a future for workers be placed as much as possible in the mix. While such a broad perspective, overly broad I admit, leaves much to speculation, it might be a good place to start for a little clarity of the Marxist type to inform the current kerfuffle.
I admit to being disgusted with those on the left who find themselves supporting Qaddafi. Though the number that actually support the regime is small, too many on the left apologize for the unacceptable. One of the reasons that the working class has not, as far as I can tell, raised much of its voice independently in the Libyan situation is that for over forty years the Qaddafi regime has rigorously and routinely suppressed and or destroyed independent trade unions, political parties and social organization. All this under the woefully misnamed Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. I suggest, as a starting point, that real analysis begins not with what people claim, but with what they do. Libya was hardly socialist (where, pray tell, were the workers?) in those heady days of the Green Book, even less so after Qaddafi’s rapprochement with imperial powers in 2003. Indeed, more and more evidence is emerging of the Qaddafi regime’s close working ties the worst of the neo-liberal, ‘war on terror, CIA dirty tricks, privatization agenda of the imperium. The guy, if reports are to be believed, had a crush on Condi Rice for Christ’s sake.
Qaddafi may claim to be an anti-imperialist, but what does that mean?
To me, to Marxists, imperialism is the system of capital accumulation internationally. To be genuinely anti-imperialist means, to me, at minimum being an anti-capitalist. So what kind of regime can be considered ‘anti-imperialist’ if it is not also anti-capitalist? Now can regimes not opposed to capitalism generally come into all kinds of conflict with the international system, ordered by and in the interests of a few leading powers- the United States most of all- without being anti-capitalist? Of course, but that doesn’t make the regime, even if I were to support it in that conflict, necessarily anti-imperialist.
I’m not exactly sure what an anti-imperialist regime, as a definition, means at all, in fact. What does it say about the class character of the regime? Absolutely nothing and without clearly identifying the class in power and how that class rules, how can we begin to get our bearings? At best it might describe an attitude, but it is hardly useful as a category of state, since states are defined primarily by the class interests they serve. Now some might say ‘consistent anti-imperialism leads to socialism’, to which I would respond, ‘but one needs to be a socialist (or someone with a post-capitalist perspective so as to not leave out my anarchist comrades who I do consider to be genuinely anti-imperialist) to be consistently anti-imperialist’.
Yes, his regime supported some of the independence movements of Africa, good. He gave weapons to the IRA, and for this I can’t fault him either. He also supported Idi Amin among other despots, less than good. Despots stick together, they have a simpatico. Well, worse than less than good. Criminal. While socialists seek to go beyond democratic rights in the bourgeois understanding of them, of ‘rights’ in general in fact, we defend whatever space for organizing the working class can wrest from the ruling class…we seek to expand it and utilize for our struggle. We are hardly indifferent to those rights. Those who are indifferent are obnoxious at best, having themselves, I am pretty sure, not recently been held in one of the prisons the conditions of which they are indifferent to. Aren’t we the first to raise our voices, and rightly so, when the democratic space we hold here in the west is attacked by ‘our’ governments?
I am pretty sure that most of those who support Qaddafi are also opposed to the Patriot Act, and yet ignore or excuse far more draconian repression in Libya. Or should they be happy to live without any democratic space, because the country they occupy is in conflict with imperialism? But let no one claim that repression was there to defend Libya against imperialism. It was there to defend a regime as unrepresentative of working class interests as any else in the region. No, the Qaddafi regime was as worthy of overthrow as Mubarak, as Ben Ali. No amount of fake anti-imperialist rhetoric can hide Qaddafi’s duplicitous relationship with said imperialism. And as for the ‘Socialist’ label, a product of bygone days, for the Libyan ‘republic’, well, one would have to first change the definition of socialism to make that fit.
It gets murky here. From the above, it must be clear that I think that Qadaffi’s regime was utterly worthy of rebellion and that it certainly did not take the CIA or anyone else to invent that need. If I were in Libya under Qaddafi (and I were not being tortured in Abu Salim) I would still be a revolutionary, because Libya needs a revolution to get the interests of workers addressed to say nothing of getting workers to power. The uprising against Qaddafi, of this I am sure, was, within the conditions specific to Libya, wholly a part of the general movement that has set fire to much of the Middle East and North Africa. That uprising quickly took a militarist turn, both the result of Qaddafi’s repression and the split within the Qaddafi camp, most importantly within the military itself. The logic of arms soon replaced the logic of mass demonstrations. Cookies crumble comrades.
The fact that elements of the regime soon joined in opposition has given the revolt a character of civil war, but revolutions are civil wars in which all kinds of grievances, not just class grievances get aired. In fact, one of the tell-tale signs of a revolution is a split in the ruling camp, the ruling class. We shouldn’t be shocked by that, even if we shouldn’t embrace the ‘out bureaucrats’. The Transitional National Council is chock full of exiled former regime elements, more recent former regime elements, neo-liberals and CIA spooks (which are apparently the same former regime elements). The folks on the ground fighting include some Islamisists, Berbers and others excluded from the old regime, young people and students, petty power brokers and plenty of working class people.
When old systems fall everyone comes to the fore with their own interests, including many with interests opposite that of workers. Already the tensions in the opposition are being played out and will only continue to get more tense. The fact that so many unsavory elements are in the mix to replace Qaddafi (with recent regime elements leading the pack-with full support from imperialism) hardly alters the legitimacy of the revolt. Revolutionary Marxists have traditionally defended states led by despots against assaults by imperialism, and rightly so. But this hardly extends to the defense of those states against assaults by the people ruled by those states, even when imperialism is involved.
The idea that the rebellion was a product of some vast Imperial design is ludicrous, they have been playing catch-up in the region since the uprisings began last winter. The idea that the rebels (all the rebels?) are mercenaries for the CIA is ridiculous, as if there weren’t plenty of totally legitimate reasons for the Libyan masses to want to rid themselves of Qaddafi. However, it is undeniably true that the leadership of the TNC have made their bed with NATO and are now getting between the sheets with oil deals undoubtedly to be the progeny.
It is also clear now, even if it wasn’t to some before, that racism is a factor in the rebellion just as it was before the rebellion. Reports of attacks on black people are increasingly common and no amount of ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ can mitigate them, they are an omen of the evil that awaits Libya. An evil with roots that go back far before the rebellion, roots that need to be pulled forcefully from the soil that nourishes them before they grow to destroy any possibility of progress for the Libyan people and the people of the region. Now that the TNC has come to be the ruling power (wobbly to be sure), with the help of the Empire, they have become the enemy facing the Libyan working class. Indeed, many of the leadership of the TNC have been the enemy all along.
One of the things that pissed me off about the debate over these last months was with that part of the left that supported the NATO intervention on the basis that it was called for by the rebellion itself and people have a ‘right’ to call on imperialism (or whoever) in such dire circumstances as those that faced Benghazi, for example. Would there have been a massacre in Benghazi? I have no idea, but the idea that the NATO intervention stopped bloodshed in Libya or prevented massacres is simply laughable. As to the ‘right’ of Libyans, or anyone else, to call for arms or airstrikes or whatever when under attack, even under dire threat, who enforces this ‘right’? Who bequeathed the ‘right’? Where is this ‘right’ codified. I have a feeling that some on the left used the term ‘right’ in a way to browbeat those who were opposed to NATO’s intervention (like me). How dare we stand against the ‘rights’ of the Libyans after all. I have to admit to scratching my head at these Marxists who talk about such ‘rights’. Did we just make up this ‘right’ so as to hand it to the Libyans or was it one of those commandments that Moses forgot to tell us about? That many of the the Libyan rebels asked for NATO intervention posed a serious problem for anti-imperialists who supported the uprising, so they started blathering about the ‘rights’ of the rebels. As far as I can tell, this ‘right’ was created on a keyboard.
For the record, if folks need weapons to defend themselves then I can’t fault them for getting those weapons where and however they can, but lets not make a virtue of that and, by all means, let us be honest about the implications of getting weapons or support from those behemoths who can provide them. Their assistance never comes without a price. That price can be paid or you can do a dine-and-dash and suffer the inevitable consequences. Either way, honesty is the best policy here. The fact is that the rebels did call for imperialist intervention and there is no such thing as benign imperialism.
The imperialists have been scrambling to steady the ground shaken by revolt in the Middle East and North Africa since the uprisings there began. Stubbornly hanging onto their clients until the last possible moments, they then claim to be for change and open to the aspirations of the masses in motion. The revolts have been aimed, in part, at the system of clients and Quislings enforced for many years by the imperialists. Dictators have been preferred since allowing even the modicum of democracy in that region would mean that the interests of empire might be threatened.
Every where in the arena of revolt the imperialists want to reconstitute the Ancien Régime without the offending despot. In Egypt the military rules without Mubarak, in Yemen the military rules without Saleh (still recovering from wounds in Riyadh) and American planes still routinely bomb. Syria is more complicated as they are not sure who best to replace the Assad regime which, far from its reputation, has been as central to keeping the lid on the explosive Middle East as the Saudis have been (you notice there is no call from the Obama administration to replace the House of Saud, a Tsarist-like bulwark of reaction in the region). In Libya it is no different where what is on offer is the Qaddafi regime sans Qaddafi.
In an attempt to break the bucking bronco of revolt and saddle it in the interests of empire the imperialists have sought to gain control, or as much control as possible, over the revolts. While it should be denounced, it is hardly surprising. For years now Qaddafi has been on the payroll of empire. True, he had his conflicts but that was so much blood under the bridge and he was warmly welcomed in from the cold. In fact, his conversion was lauded by the mouthpieces of empire as the result of the Bush administrations’ intervention in Iraq. The war against Saddam convinced our old enemy Moammar to get onside was the line. Oil contracts and arms sales followed. Renditions and torture too. But then the people of Libya decided they wanted to join their sisters and brothers and throw off the stifling despot and his family. When leading ‘progressives’ and humanitarians began the call for intervention, imperialism saw a possibility to intervene directly in the process underway to control an outcome and regain lost legitimacy.
Imperialism doesn’t give a good god damn about the people of Libya and their needs to say nothing of their aspirations. Imperialism, being a system that cannot countenance independence from it, seeks to incorporate all opposition into the system. If it can’t incorporate it, it will attempt to destroy it. Qaddafi couldn’t be incorporated any longer, not because of his ‘anti-imperialism’, but because he was being rejected by large parts of Libyan society. So, without a blush at the monumental hypocrisy involved, imperialism declared Qaddafi an enemy (again) and went to war in an effort to place its stamp, or rather its boot, on the outcome in Libya so that it might then be able to walk over the revolt elsewhere in the Middle East. But the world is not simply a piece of clay to be molded by empire, even the most powerful of empires. Sometimes folks on the left give the imperialists far too much credit in being able to control and manipulate events, even as imperialism certainly seeks to do just that. Just because imperialism has intervened in Libya doesn’t mean that the process there is now irretrievably trapped in its web anymore than our own dynamic here in the Belly of the Beast is.
As imperialism attempts to impose its will and desires it will be confronted by the will and desires of others just as it will be greeted by the boot-lickers of every nation as a patron. It may have succeeded in getting rid of Qaddafi only to find itself with a situation less pliant than the one that came before.
It would be easy to say that there are two schools of thought on the left internationally; those who caved into, yet another, humanitarian intervention and gave succor to the imperialist assault on Libya or those who blindly followed that best Qaddafi even if his ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials were most dubious. But most of the left,, I mean the real left, doesn’t fall into either of these camps. I have been happy to have seen some on the left cite Leon Trotsky’s brilliant 1938 missive against ultra-lefts ‘Learn to Think’, though some who quote it favorably deny in practice its elemental message. I’ll quote some of it here:
‘In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.’
‘Ultra-left scholastics think not in concrete terms but in empty abstractions. They have transformed the idea of defeatism into such a vacuum. They can see vividly neither the process of war nor the process of revolution. They seek a hermetically sealed formula which excludes fresh air. But a formula of this kind can offer no orientation for the proletarian vanguard.’
‘Defeatist policy, that is, the policy of irreconcilable class struggle in war-time cannot consequently be “the same” in all countries, just as the policy of the proletariat cannot be the same in peacetime. Only the Comintern of the epigones has established a regime in which the parties of all countries break into march simultaneously with the left foot. In struggle against this bureaucratic cretinism we have attempted more than once to prove that the general principles and tasks must be realized in each country in accordance with its internal and external conditions. This principle retains its complete force for war-time as well.’
‘An irreconcilable attitude against bourgeois militarism does not signify at all that the proletariat in all cases enters into a struggle against its own “national” army. At least the workers would not interfere with soldiers who are extinguishing a fire or rescuing drowning people during a flood; on the contrary, they would help side by side with the soldiers and fraternize with them. And the question is not exhausted merely by cases of elemental calamities. If the French fascists should make an attempt today at a coup d’etat and the Daladier government found itself forced to move troops against the fascists, the revolutionary workers, while maintaining their complete political independence, would fight against the fascists alongside of these troops. Thus in a number of cases the workers are forced not only to permit and tolerate, but actively to support the practical measures of the bourgeois government.’
He goes on to give this example (cited by some in support of NATO intervention, handy as it is that is takes place in North Africa):
‘Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.
Does this not signify, however, that the Italian workers moderate their struggle in this case against the fascist regime? Not in the slightest. Fascism renders “aid” to the Algerians only in order to weaken its enemy, France, and to lay its rapacious hand on her colonies. The revolutionary Italian workers do not forget this for a single moment. They call upon the Algerians not to trust their treacherous “ally” and at the same time continue their own irreconcilable struggle against fascism, “the main enemy in their own country”. Only in this way can they gain the confidence of the rebels, help the rebellion and strengthen their own revolutionary position.’
I give the example to make a point that the example Trotsky gives here is NOT analogous to the events in Libya; the rebellion that broke out there was not aimed, primarily, to throw off imperialist shackles, but to throw off the shackles of one who, falsely, claimed anti-imperialism. However, our situation now must be faced in the same way: 1) Reality is concrete and has to be analyzed on the basis of actual events, forces and possibilities 2) Workers and the left, if they are to have any impact on events, have to act independently of the imperialists, even if we might have, temporarily, aligned immediate interests 3) The interests of the working class, both immediately and historically, can only be safeguarded by the working class themselves; everywhere in this article it talks about what workers should do, NOT what the imperialist should do.
I think we need to have the same independence of thought and of orientation around events in the Middle East as Trotsky has in this article. We begin, as partisans of the working class, with what is in the interests of that class then we determine what is permissible to advance those interests. Admittedly, this is quite difficult when, almost nowhere, do workers organize in their own name and their own interests. A presupposition of the Old Man’s advice, however, is to begin from the interests of the working class. That class still exists comrades, it exists in Libya despite the years of repression as it exists here in the United States despite decades of retreat and confusion. It will never raise itself on the back of NATO bombers or Qaddafi’s faux anti-imperialism. It has to seek out its own path, concretely determined and historically defined, or it will forever be a tool of other interests.
So what about the workers of Libya comrades? What about the workers of North Africa and the Middle East? What about the workers of the United States? Surely the choice can’t be the imperialists or Qaddafi, America or Assad, Democrat or Republican. Too much of the debate already has been an echo of ‘lesser-evilism’. This is no time for lesser -evilism, whether it be the lesser-evil of a NATO bomb or the lesser-evil of an ‘anti-imperialist’ demagogue. The world is in motion like no time in my political life, the revolutions begun in the Middle East are going to be determined over the coming period. We can continue to have the powers-that-be make a list of choices for us, or we can choose independence of analysis and of action.
Aside: Apologies for the haphazardness of this rant. It is just not possible to dot all of the i’s and cross all of the t’s in a situation like this. I am sure comrades will find as many faults and as many missing elements in the article as I do. Further apologies for the quietness of the blog for too many weeks. My neglect was warranted, but neglect it has been. We’re back to our normal inconsistencies here at the Rustbelt now.