By Sacha Ismail
1. Support for the rebels against Qaddafi
The AWL supported the Libyan rebels against Qaddafi because they represent a popular revolt against a totalitarian dictatorship. That this revolt is dominated by a heterogeneous mix of bourgeois tendencies, many of them quite reactionary, is not decisive from the point of view of winning democratic space in Libyan society, and above all space for a Libyan workers’ movement to develop.
As Trotsky put it in 1932 (‘What next?’), explaining the difference between the decaying Weimar Republic and the Nazi revolt against it: “The German working class has at its command potent political, economic, and sport organizations. Therein lies the difference between ‘Brüning’s regime’ and ‘Hitler’s regime.’ This is not Brüning’s virtue; a weak bureaucracy is no virtue. But one must see what is. The chief, the fundamental and crowning fact is that the working class of Germany stands even today [ie shortly before the Nazis took power] in the full panoply of its organizations.”
Or as he summed it up: “To us the criteria for appraising changes in political regimes of bourgeois rule are not the principles of formal democracy but the vital interests of proletarian democracy”, ie space for working-class organisations such as unions, political parties and so on to exist and for the working class to struggle. This in no way implied support for the Weimar regime – on the contrary (in fact Trotsky’s very next sentence was “No direct or indirect support of Brüning’s regime!”) It meant recognising the difference between the two regimes, and utilising this difference to the advantage of the working class.
In Libya, it is not a case of a powerful labour movement facing destruction, but of winning space for independent workers’ organisations to develop from scratch, for the first time as far as we know. But that does not alter the basic argument.
This is what determined our position in the Libyan civil war. As a general rule, in a civil war between bourgeois-totalitarian and bourgeois-democratic forces, Marxists advocate workers take sides, while maintaining class independence. As Trotsky put it in 1938 (‘Learn to think’): “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” (my emphasis). The Spanish civil war/revolution was precisely such a case.
In Libya there have, so far, been no working-class organisations to act independently, but the basic line of struggle is clear.
2. No difference between the two camps?
It has been argued by some on the left that the rebels are in fact no more progressive, from a democratic and working-class viewpoint, than Qaddafi. We do not think this makes sense. A blood-soaked autocracy, which at various points killed thousands of political prisoners in a matter of days (eg the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre), and held Libyan society in a Stalinist-style totalitarian vise, is being eliminated. In the rebel heartland of Eastern Libya, a basic civil society has emerged, with one hundred and twenty independent newspapers (International Media support briefing, July 2011). The rebel leaders have delayed elections from eight to twenty months, but they will still be the first real elections in Libya's history. (There has been more than one demonstration against the National Transitional Council by activists in Benghazi - a significant fact in itself.) The Berber minority in the West of the country, heavily repressed under Qaddafi, is asserting itself. According to Kamal Abu-Eita, the head of the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions, an independent trade union has been set up in Benghazi. Already, that is quite a difference!
We should not have faith in any of these developments. We do not know how things will develop. There may be a prolonged war against remnants of the old regime, or a civil war within the rebel camp. There may be a growth of Islamism. The rebel regime may degenerate into a new tyranny. Already there is widespread evidence of rebel fighters persecuting black Africans, most of them not mercenaries but migrant workers. Naturally, such incidents and tendencies should be condemned and fought: but that does not wipe out the basic distinctions between the old and new regimes.
Above all: the Western business interests streaming into Libya will, of course, have capitalist profits and not the interests of the Libyan masses at heart, as will the new government. The winning of democratic, let alone working-class, rights will require a prolonged and bitter struggle. But the idea that the conditions for this struggle are not radically, qualitatively easier than under Qaddafi is ludicrous.
3. No support for the new regime – help a workers’ movement emerge
Taking sides in a civil war is one thing; political support for the bourgeois leadership of the side you support, or for the regime emerging from its victory, is quite another. For socialists, there should be absolutely no question of any kind of political support for the new regime in Libya. We want to help a Libyan workers’ movement develop, and advocate that it develops a political alternative and opposition to the new government (though naturally solidarity is not predicated on the development of such an alternative). In the new Libya there will be struggles not only over workers’ right to organise, but over control of natural resources (above all, oil), secularism, women’s rights, gay rights, equality for minorities and many other issues. The masses of the Libyan people will gain from the revolution to the extent that a labour movement develops and constitutes itself as an independent force. To do that international solidarity will be needed.
4. Why we did not oppose the NATO intervention
Others on the left argued that, while the rebel struggle should be supported, it was necessary to oppose the NATO military intervention, ie no fly zone and bombing campaign. We believe this was contradictory – to put it mildly.
At the start of March Qaddafi’s forces approached the rebel capital Benghazi; in face, some tanks even entered the city. It is almost certain that without outside intervention, Benghazi would have fallen and the rebellion been crushed. Given Qaddafi’s previous record and the experience of comparable situations (eg the Syrian state’s retaking of Hama after the 1982 rebellion, in which something like 20-30,000 were killed), it seems likely this counter-revolution would have been extremely bloody. In any case, it would have been a counter-revolution, and a blow to the revolutionary movements throughout the Arab world. Instead Qaddafi’s fall has been a major blow to the Syrian regime; the consolidation of his power would have had the opposite effect.
Some socialists have taken refuge in the idea that workers’ struggle could have stopped Qaddafi’s forces, pointing to the inspiring examples of mass working-class action in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. But this is fantasy politics. There is no Libyan labour movement; after four decades of totalitarian rule, Libyan workers are not even minimally organised as a class. Nor were the Tunisian and Egyptian workers in any position to come to the aid of the rebels. Obviously we regret these facts: but we should look reality in the face. In the time scale available, with things as they were, nothing was going to save the Libyan revolution except outside intervention.
It was therefore wrong for socialists to raise slogans, like “No intervention” or “Stop the bombing”, the realisation of which would have meant disaster for the Libyan revolution and the class struggle in the region. “No trust in NATO” was more appropriate. (Though it would have been wrong to slip into attempts to provide NATO with tactical advice, other more specific slogans, such as the demand to provide weapons directly to the rebels, were also possible.)
5. Did we support NATO?
Doesn’t this imply some sort of support for the NATO intervention, however critical? No more than when a line of police intervenes to attack a large fascist demonstration and, in doing so, protects a smaller anti-fascist counter-demonstration (this is a real example which occurred recently in the English city of Nottingham). To call for police action or give positive support to the police, even in such a situation, would clearly be incompatible with working-class independence. So, even more so, would be abandoning our general class hostility to the police. But it does not follow that we should shout “Police off the streets” in all circumstances, even when the overwhelmingly likely consequence would be fascists attacking, beating up and dispersing anti-fascists.
We did not call for or support the NATO intervention in Libya, because of the basic (capitalist, imperialist) nature of NATO, but it does not follow that opposing this specific NATO action made sense.
6. Libya and Iraq
What about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq? Didn’t that also remove an oppressive dictator, and pave the way for an Iraqi labour movement to emerge?
The AWL opposed the invasion of Iraq. We believe that situation was different from this one, for two inter-related reasons. Firstly, there has been no foreign invasion and occupation of Libya, with all that implies. And secondly, the NATO intervention in Libya prevented the crushing of a revolutionary uprising already in progress.
If the campaign against the Iraq war had been successful, then the Iraqi people would have been in no worse position than before to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Indeed, if the campaign had been conducted under clear internationalist, anti-Saddam slogans, as for the most part it was not, they might even have been in a better position than before. Of course we cannot predict how history would have unfolded differently, but the Ba’thist regime might have been swept away in a development like the Arab Spring. Certainly it could have been overthrown from below, with at least fewer of the horrendous consequences arising from foreign invasion and occupation – hundreds of thousands of deaths, social break down, the unleashing of sectarian conflicts, the seizure of resources by American corporations and so on. While is it true that the US/UK overthrow of Saddam Hussein freed the Iraqi workers from his totalitarian grip, allowing an Iraqi labour movement to emerge, it did so at too high a price!
In contrast: if demands to stop the much more limited NATO intervention in Libya had been successful that would have meant the crushing of the actually existing Libyan revolution which taking place and a huge blow to the revolutionary movements across the region. Meanwhile, Libya has not been invaded or occupied. The balance of issues that have to be weighed up in assessing how socialists should respond to the imperialist intervention is thus qualitatively different.
There is, however, a different analogy with Iraq. At the end of the first Gulf War, in 1991, there were uprisings in Kurdistan and in Southern Iraq. Though it had encouraged such uprisings, the US military sat back and let them be crushed. If it had intervened in their favour, it is hard to see why we would have condemned that fact (rather than exposed their hypocrisy, advocated no trust etc etc). This, despite the fact that during the war itself, we said “US out of the Gulf”. Similarly, we could have no trust in the no fly zone the UN established over Iraqi Kurdistan at the end of the war – but why would we have demanded it be lifted, which could only have meant that the Iraqi airforce resuming attacks against the Kurds?
7. Has imperialism been strengthened?
Does the success of the intervention in Libya represent a boost for US, British and French imperialism, outweighing the immediate benefit of overthrowing Qaddafi? In fact it is hard to see what gains, negative from our point of view, their military support of the Libyan rebels has provided (for them) which outweigh the positive fact (for us) of the Libyan revolution’s survival and the consequences for the broader democratic revolt in the region. If Libya’s national independence were threatened, with the rebels acting as Western puppets and a popular movement amassing behind the Qaddafi, the issues would be different. But that was always very unlikely to be the case. Because this intervention is so different from the Iraq war, for the reasons explained above, the intervention has not really rehabilitated that disastrous adventure; in fact even right-wing bourgeois commentary has focused, for its own reasons, on the dissimilarities between the two. In any case, what "imperialism" - more accurately, any imperialist power - has gained is strictly limited.
Compare Egypt. There is no real sense in which Egypt after its revolution is any less under "imperialist domination" than Libya. Neither are oppressed nations; both are independent states. At the same time, both are low down in the economic and diplomatic hierarchy of the world, and clearly subordinate partners in their alliances with the United States (though obviously Libya is far weaker). In other words, the NATO intervention itself has not subordinated Libya to an imperialist power or powers in any meaningful way (as distinct from a close NTC-NATO relationship, and pro-NATO illusions among the Libyan masses).
In place of generalities about ‘imperialism being strengthened’, we need a concrete analysis of what has been gained and lost by our side and by the various ruling classes and imperial powers. Such a balance sheet cannot fail to reveal that opposition to the NATO intervention in Libya was suicidal.
8. Trotsky’s approach
We believe this position is well-rooted in the serious Marxist tradition. Trotsky explains the basic approach well in the above-quoted ‘Learn to think’:
“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? [No.] 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…
“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.”
Of course this quotation does not prove that we were right about Libya: no quotation can do that. But it does prove that the classical Marxist approach to anti-imperialism did not always involve absolute opposition to every imperialist action. This is all the more striking since Trotsky was writing in a world of high colonialism, when a few European powers did indeed control huge swathes of the world directly, as they do not today. In this world, Trotsky believed that “anti-imperialist struggle is the key to liberation”, yet this did not stop him discounting the possibility of imperialists rendering aid, for their own reasons, to genuine democratic movements.
9. Has the Libyan revolution been hijacked?
Others on the left argue that the NATO powers have ‘confiscated’ or ‘hijacked’ the Libyan revolution, co-opting it for their own ends and in the process gutting it of any serious revolutionary content.
Clearly the big powers supported the Libyan rebels for their own reasons; no doubt they have used the intervention to push for every opening and concession they can get, with all sorts of deals done behind the scenes. But NATO has not occupied Libya, and the rebels are not puppets of any foreign power. It is worth noting here: if they had simply wanted access to Libya’s oil, the Western states could simply have let Qaddafi, with whom they were already dealing happily enough, crush the rebels, as they let the Saudis crush the Bahraini democracy movement. In fact things were more complicated: expecting a quick revolutionary victory, a la Tunisia, and hopeful of a less wild, unpredictable ally than Qaddafi, the big powers threw their lot in with the rebels; when Qaddafi fought back successfully, they were presented with a dilemma. They solved this by intervening to help the rebellion. It may also be the case that public opinion played a role; the Sarkozy regime, in particular, may have wanted to compensate for its embarrassing support for the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali.
We repeat: what will define the character of the new government is not imperialist domination – Libya is unlikely to become an oppressed nation - but primarily the social base and politics of those organised in and leading the rebellion (which of course includes their close alliance with the Western powers). And the rebel movement has not been transformed from a left-wing, grassroots social movement into a right-wing military coup orchestrated from above. It remains roughly what it was, the beginnings of a democratic revolution carried out by a miscellany of bourgeois forces. It has real democratic content, despite reactionary elements within it, and despite its primitive political character, shaped by the fact there is no labour movement or left in Libya. All that would have been true if it had won (or lost) without NATO assistance.
Again, compare Egypt. With a pre-existing civil society and a big working class that has carved out space for and built the beginnings of an independent movement over three or four decades – and no NATO intervention – the revolution from below has still resulted in a right-wing, pro-US military regime that has attempted to ban strikes, cracked down on demonstrators and so on. Though the Egyptian working class has played a central, and inspiring role, it is so far a bourgeois-democratic revolution – and a stalled one at that. (Note that the Libyan uprising has overthrown the old regime, while in Egypt and Tunisia the regime ditched its figurehead and remains in power - with very important modifications, of course.) The basic factors deciding the shape and development of revolutionary movements in the Middle East are the class forces and political actors at work inside each country.
We should not adopt a mirror image version of the imperialist world view, in which the people of Libya and other countries are simply pawns in the machinations of the big powers, or raw material for foreign exploitation. That is undoubtedly one dynamic at play, but there are others too. The Libyan people are rational actors capable of debating and shaping their own future in a society governed, like any other, by the laws of class struggle. They have overthrown a dictator not as pliant tools of NATO, but through their own heroic struggle, making use of external aid. There are many dangers, some of them connected to NATO's involvement, but how things turn out in Libya will be decided by further struggles. Our first duty is solidarity to help a Libyan workers’ movement and left emerge.
10. Some slogans
Down with Qaddafi
No trust in the NATO powers
The Libyan people must decide their own future
For a democratic, secular republic in Libya
Support Libyan workers, women, minorities