Upon hearing of Muammar Qaddafi’s execution, U.S. President Barack Obama, who had shared a photo-op with him as recently as 2009, proclaimed: “working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.” Obama was particularly pleased that, “Without putting a single US service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives,” and alluded to future targets:
“In a line aimed at the region’s other despots, the president said, ‘Today’s events prove once more that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end.’
“Asked if that sends a message to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has mounted a brutal crackdown on protesters, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney simply restated existing policy that Assad ‘has lost his legitimacy to rule.’”
—New York Post, 21 October 2011
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden compared the outcome in Libya to earlier, less successful adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan:
“In this case, America spent $2 billion total and didn’t lose a single life. This is more of the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has been in the past.”
Israeli journalist Orly Azoulay praised Obama’s “new war doctrine,” pointing to the integration of “massive air power” and “local rebel forces”:
“General Gaddafi’s death is yet another victory for the new war doctrine adopted by United States President Barack Obama: No ground forces in enemy countries, but rather, utilizing massive air power—including drones—in order to pulverize enemy strongholds. In Libya’s case at least, this doctrine also included cooperation with local rebel forces.”
—Ynetnews.com, 21 October 2011
This is a fair summary of events in Libya—“massive air power” destroyed the armed bodies loyal to Qaddafi and opened the door for local quislings to scramble to fill the vacuum. Yet things do not always go according to plan, and it is sometimes easier to depose an existing regime than to impose a viable successor, as NATO discovered in Afghanistan a decade ago.
In both Libya and Afghanistan, the immediate result of “regime change” was the installation of new puppet leaders with strong American connections. Afghan President Hamid Karzai—who was appointed leader at a conference in Bonn, Germany in December 2001—had worked with the CIA as a fundraiser for the anti-Soviet mujahedin 20 years earlier. Libya’s new prime minister, Abdurraheem el-Keib, who holds American citizenship, attended school in the U.S. and taught at the University of Alabama before moving to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to chair the Electrical Engineering Department at the Petroleum Institute, where his research was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. With this background, he seems well qualified to oversee the return of Libya’s oil and gas fields (which had been nationalized under Qaddafi in the early 1970s) to Western control.
Marxists, unlike social democrats, unconditionally defend the right of subjugated nations to resist the predations of the “advanced capitalist” global powers. In 1956, revolutionaries backed Egypt against a joint British/French/Israeli intervention aimed at reversing the nationalization of the Suez Canal. When the U.S./UK and others attacked Serbia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq two years later, Marxists took sides—despite the reactionary character of the regimes headed by Slobodan Milosevic, Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein.
The attack on Libya, like the earlier interventions in Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq, was preceded by a barrage of lies—in this case focused on claims of a wholesale slaughter of civilians by the Qaddafi regime following the 17 February 2011 “Day of Rage” protest. The chief source for these reports was Al Jazeera, the news agency operated by the rulers of Qatar, who supplied weapons and hundreds of soldiers to the insurgents. The lurid tales of “massacres” of civilians by the Libyan air force turned out to be grossly exaggerated.
On 2 March 2011, two weeks before the bombs began to fall, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Congressional subcommittee “that the Pentagon has no confirmation that Libyan strongman Muammar al Qaddafi is using his air force to kill civilians” (CBS News, 2 March 2011). On 22 March 2011, after the bombing had commenced, USA Today carried an article by Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas noting that, “Despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.” Two weeks later Richard Haass, president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that the “evidence was not persuasive that a large-scale massacre or genocide was either likely or imminent” in Libya (Huffington Post, 6 April 2011).
It is now clear that there was no more “genocide” in Libya than “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq in 2003. Justifying military aggression with lies is a time-honored practice, as Adolf Hitler reminded his top commanders on 22 August 1939, as final preparations were underway for attacking Poland:
“I shall give a propaganda reason for starting the war, whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth. When starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory.”
—quoted in Hitler and Stalin, Alan Bullock
This has certainly been the case in Libya. No one in the bourgeois media has shown much concern about following up on stories of civilian massacres by the regime, which had been so important in legitimizing military intervention. The fact that much of the international “revolutionary” left eagerly swallowed and regurgitated this imperialist propaganda—and has yet to admit they were hoodwinked—testifies to their political adaptation to the capitalist social order.
The UN Security Council, professing profound concerns about the well-being of ordinary Libyans, used these tales to justify the imposition of sanctions, the freezing of Libyan assets abroad and the creation of a “no-fly zone.” The latter resulted in the insertion of NATO airpower into what had previously been a civil war between the Qaddafi regime and imperialist-linked dissidents centered in Benghazi.
Estimates of total casualties inflicted by the 9,600 “humanitarian” bombing sorties carried out by British, French and other NATO aircraft from April to October 2011 vary considerably, but it is generally agreed that thousands of Libyans were killed (many of them civilians) and many thousands more seriously wounded. NATO bombs massively damaged Libya’s infrastructure and displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes. The pretence that this destruction was motivated by a desire to “protect” civilians is belied by the casual indifference with which victims of NATO’s air war have been treated.
After months of bitter conflict, the cumulative effect of the imperialist bombardment (supplemented by opposition militias aided by hundreds of foreign special forces) succeeded in decimating Qaddafi’s military. According to many accounts, the most effective indigenous forces fighting the regime were Islamists, some of them linked to Al Qaeda. For the most part, however, the “rebels” were not a major factor, apart from their value in drawing fire from Qaddafi’s forces, who thereby made it easier for NATO airstrikes to target them. The role of the ragtag anti-Qaddafi fighters, like the politicians of the Transitional National Council (TNC—aka National Transitional Council), who enjoyed the backing of the imperialists from the start, was to put a Libyan face on “regime change.”
In a 1915 pamphlet entitled, “Socialism and War,” the great Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin declared that in cases of imperialist military attacks (“humanitarian” or otherwise) on neocolonial countries, “every Socialist would sympathise with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slaveowning, predatory ‘great’ powers.” There is no ambiguity: revolutionaries militarily side with oppressed countries against imperialist attack regardless of the crimes (real or imagined) of the ruling regime. When Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in 1935, Leon Trotsky immediately responded: “Of course, we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia” (“The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict,” 17 July 1935). The fact that chattel slavery persisted under the regime of Haile Selassie was irrelevant:
“If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”
—”On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo,” 22 April 1936
NATO’s victory over Qaddafi, by vindicating Obama’s supposed “new war doctrine” for U.S. imperialism, helps pave the way for future aggression in Africa and the Middle East. The eagerness with which the overwhelming majority of the world’s self-proclaimed “Trotskyist” organizations accepted the imperialist narrative graphically illustrates their distance from the political heritage they claim to represent. Instead of forthrightly standing for the military victory of Qaddafi’s forces over NATO and its proxies, these revisionists supported the latter as representing a “revolutionary” movement or, at best, adopted a position of effective neutrality. In doing so, they turn their backs on the anti-imperialism of the Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky.
Probably the most overtly pro-imperialist position was taken by the British Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), which blandly observed:
“The most far-reaching of the [North African] uprisings so far has been in Libya. Of course it is unusual in that its ultimate success was dependent on military intervention by NATO.”
• • •
“Successful campaigning by the Western left to prevent NATO intervention would have flown in the face of the express wishes of the revolutionary movement itself, and resulted in a massacre in Benghazi which would have been a tragedy in itself but also an enormous defeat for the ‘Arab Spring’ as a whole.
“Workers’ Liberty didn’t oppose the [NATO] intervention.”
—5 October 2011
The AWL’s characterization of the motley collection of long-time imperialist assets, Islamic reactionaries and defectors from the Qaddafi regime in Benghazi as the leaders of a “revolutionary” movement whose wishes had to be respected was widely shared by many supposedly Trotskyist groups, although most were less candid about NATO’s central role in the conflict and less willing to spell out the ultimate logic of their position. Instead, they employed varying combinations of factual misrepresentation, non sequiturs and special pleading in awkward attempts to maintain some pretence of “anti-imperialist” orthodoxy while supporting NATO’s “rebel” proxies (who were falsely equated with the courageous youth who had earlier brought down the hated pro-imperialist dictators in Tunisia and Egypt).
Alan Woods, a leading figure in the ultra-opportunist International Marxist Tendency (IMT), was among those offering the most unqualified endorsement of NATO’s Benghazi allies:
“[Frederick] Engels explained that the state is armed bodies of men. In Benghazi and other cities controlled by the rebels, the old state has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by the armed people, revolutionary militias, which Lenin said were the embryo of a new state power.”
—“Uprising in Libya: Tremble, tyrants!,” 23 February 2011
An essentially similar, if slightly more restrained, assessment was advanced by the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI—from which the IMT split in 1992), which also characterized the Benghazi uprising as a “revolution” while warning that it might be “hijacked by remnants of the Qaddafi regime, pro-bourgeois opposition ‘leaders’, reactionary tribal leaders and imperialist interests” (“Gaddafi must go! It’s a fight to the finish,” 28 February 2011). A few weeks later the CWI was denouncing the UN “no-fly” zone as an imperialist military intervention:
“The UN Security Council’s majority decision to enact a militarily-imposed ‘no-fly-zone’ against Libya, while greeted with joy on the streets of Benghazi and Tobruk, is in no way intended to defend the Libyan revolution. Revolutionaries in Libya may think that this decision will help them, but they are mistaken. Naked economic and political calculations lay behind the imperialist powers’ decision.”
—“No to Western Military Intervention—Victory to the Libyan Revolution—Build an Independent Movement of Workers and Youth!,” 19 March 2011
While recognizing that “The largely self-appointed ‘National Council’ that emerged in Benghazi is a combination of elements from the old regime and more pro-imperialist elements” (Ibid.), the CWI continued to hail the supposed “Libyan revolution” spearheaded by the TNC.
The CWI’s competitors in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) took an essentially similar approach—touting the “revolution” while warning that appeals to the West for funds and NATO air support invited imperialist “blackmail”:
“Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), the body that grew out of the revolution, made a series of simple demands in the first crucial days of the uprising. It asked for the recognition of the TNC, access to the billions in sequestrated regime funds in order to buy weapons and other crucial supplies, and an immediate halt to the ‘mercenary flights’ that provided Gaddafi’s regime with its foot soldiers.”
• • •
“The West, in effect, blackmailed the revolution.”
—Socialist Worker, 26 March 2011
Like the IMT and CWI, the SWP treated the 17 February 2011 protests that kicked off the revolt as largely spontaneous in origin:
“Inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, a loose network of young activists joined by notables, among them judges and respected lawyers, called for peaceful protests on 17 February. These protests, despite the modest demands, turned into the first public displays of opposition to the regime.”
—Socialist Review, April 2011
In fact, it was not “a loose network of young activists” but rather the imperialist-linked National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO—subsequently subsumed by the TNC) that initiated the 17 February demonstrations, as the SWP subsequently admitted. While not explicitly repudiating its previous claim that the protests had originated with “a loose network of young activists,” the May 2011 issue of Socialist Review stated that: “Exiles in the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition coordinated with dissidents to plan a ‘Day of Rage’ for 17 February.” There was no need to “blackmail” the NCLO, an organization whose founders included people with a long-standing connection with the CIA, as documented in our 1 April 2011 statement (see “Defeat the Imperialists!” reprinted on 37).
The “Trotskyist” publicists for the Benghazi rebels initially brushed off reports of support for the imposition of a “no-fly” zone and played up expressions by the TNC of formal opposition to foreign military intervention. For example, on 1 March 2011, the IMT wrote:
“According to Al Jazeera, Abdel Fattah Younes, Libya’s former interior minister who defected to the opposition, has stated that the idea that the people would welcome foreign troops was ‘out of the question.’
“This has been confirmed by Hafiz Ghoga, spokesperson of the newly formed ‘National Libyan Council’ [i.e., TNC] that has been set up in Benghazi. Ghoga is quoted as saying: ‘We are completely against foreign intervention. The rest of Libya will be liberated by the people…and Gaddafi’s security forces will be eliminated by the people of Libya.’”
—”No to imperialist intervention in Libya”
The TNC’s initial posture of opposition to Western intervention may have been motivated by a desire to consolidate popular support and rebut the regime’s (essentially correct) claim that the leaders of the revolt were in league with foreign interests whose chief objective was to re-appropriate Libya’s fossil fuel resources. During the first few weeks, several prominent figures (including both the justice and interior ministers) defected, and the Benghazi rebels, along with their backers, may well have hoped that the regime would simply implode. As Qaddafi’s loyalists regained their balance and moved to recapture Benghazi, the TNC began desperately demanding NATO air cover. The fact that this shift apparently failed to produce any sort of rift within the rebel camp refutes the narrative of a hijacked revolution.
There was, in fact, no “Libyan revolution”—the Benghazi revolt was, at its core, an expression of a long-standing division among the traditional ruling elites in which an unstable amalgam of monarchists and former Qaddafi loyalists (joined by cadres of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) made a bid for power. Their revolt tapped a deep well of popular anger and resentment, and most of the TNC’s supporters doubtless imagined that they were involved in another chapter of the “Arab Spring” which had already toppled dictators in the region. But the revolt in Libya had a different character right from the outset, which explains the enthusiastic support from Washington, Paris and other NATO capitals.
By mid-March 2011, as the bombing was about to commence, even the IMT expressed some uneasiness about the character of the “rebel” leaders they had been promoting:
“These people successfully stepped into the vacuum of leadership that emerged in Benghazi when the state collapsed in the face of the revolution, but rather than strengthening the revolution, they weaken it. There are also Islamists, who can be of no appeal to working people in the cities. There are human rights activists and pro-democracy groups, whose main objective is some kind of bourgeois democracy, but who do not take into account the social and economic demands of ordinary working people. Side by side with all these there is the revolutionary youth and the working class and poor.”
—”Why has the revolution stalled in Libya?,” 17 March 2011
A few weeks later the IMT downgraded its assessment of the “rebel leaders” even further, comparing them to “the Karzai regime in Afghanistan or the Maliki regime in Iraq”:
“This brings us to the role played by the Interim Council that was established in Benghazi. This Council was thrown up by a situation in which the masses had brought down state power, but did not know what to replace it with. There was a de facto power vacuum created. In this situation accidental elements came to the fore, who are now clearly playing a counter-revolutionary role.”
—”Libyan Interim Government—agents of imperialism,” 1 April 2011
The TNC leadership was indeed counterrevolutionary, but it was hardly “accidental”—it was made up of representatives of most opposition formations, including the initiators of the 17 February “Day of Rage.”
In October 2011, as the imperialists celebrated Qaddafi‘s murder, Alan Woods was still blathering about a continuing “Libyan Revolution”:
“It is a confused and contradictory situation, the outcome of which is as yet unclear. On the one hand, the mass movement, including the working class, is pushing for its own demands. On the other hand, the bourgeois elements are manoeuvring with the imperialists to take control of the situation. The main motor force of the Revolution is the young rebel fighters who are honest and courageous but also confused and disoriented and can be manipulated by the fundamentalists and other demagogues.”
—”After the death of Gaddafi: Revolution and counterrevolution in Libya,” 21 October 2011
The essential elements of the situation were clear enough—NATO had orchestrated a low-overhead “regime change” in Libya, designed to reopen its oil and gas fields for foreign exploitation. However “confused and disoriented” young Libyans may have been, it is hard to imagine that they were more befuddled than those IMT members who took Woods’s brainless objectivism seriously.
Unlike the IMT, many former boosters of the TNC-led “Libyan revolution” had some inkling that when Tripoli fell, it was the imperialists, not the Libyan masses, who had come out on top. The British SWP, for example, schizophrenically “celebrated” Qaddafi’s fall while acknowledging that the main beneficiaries were likely to be Western oil corporations:
“The end of Gaddafi’s regime is a cause for celebration. He will be the third Arab dictator to fall this year.
“But the nature of the struggle in Libya is now fundamentally different from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that originally inspired it. It became so once Western forces decided to appropriate it.”
• • •
“The imperialist powers hijacked the Libyan revolt and bent it to their own needs. They forced the new rebel authority in Benghazi to reaffirm trade contracts and international oil deals.”
—Socialist Worker, 20 August 2011
Other groups also pushed the notion of a “hijacked” revolution. The French Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA), which in March 2011 had co-signed a declaration with the Stalinist Communist Party and others demanding that French imperialism recognize the TNC, issued a 21 August 2011 statement insisting that while events in Libya had paralleled the “revolutionary processes underway in Tunisia and in Egypt,” somehow “under cover of a resolution from the UN, the member countries of NATO attempted to hijack the process underway by an aerial military intervention.”
Socialist Action (SA), an American group historically linked to the NPA, also hailed the Libyan “revolution,” but attempted to give its backing of the TNC a leftist spin by offering “political support in their fight against the quislings who would turn over Libya to imperialist intervention” (Socialist Action, March 2011). The fact that the TNC quislings were soon actively demanding imperialist intervention presumably contributed to SA’s eventual decision to rethink its position. But as NATO was preparing to go in, Socialist Action (along with the rest of what remains of the late Ernest Mandel’s “United Secretariat of the Fourth International” [USec]), was critical of “the role of Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro in their one-sided, if correct, denunciation of imperialism’s interests and intentions in this affair, while denying or ignoring Qaddafi’s repression and murders” (Ibid.). It is hardly surprising that such left-nationalist or Stalinist bonapartists (whom SA and the USec have fawned over for years) were not particularly concerned by Qaddafi’s anti-democratic transgressions. But at least they understood what the imperialists were up to and did not ascribe a transcendent “revolutionary” dynamic to the TNC.
Socialist Action‘s line change (which they have yet to acknowledge as such) was not made public until after Tripoli had fallen to the TNC/NATO alliance in August. In a 2 September 2011 statement entitled, “Imperialist Victory Is No Gain For Libyan People,” Jeff Mackler, Socialist Action’s leading figure, wrote:
“In the early days of these mass protests, there were unmistakable but only modest indications of the independent character of at least a portion of the anti-Gadhafi leadership, as when anti-government protesters unfurled massive banners from rooftops, declaring, ‘No Foreign Intervention: The Libyan People Can Manage It Alone.’ Even then, it was not always clear whether opposition to foreign intervention referred to troops on the ground only, since major elements of the opposition had announced early on, and even demanded, support by U.S./NATO forces and a ‘no-fly zone.’”
At a point when it appeared that the Qaddafi regime might melt down, it made sense for the leaders of the TNC lash-up to assert their preference for rearranging Libyan society without foreign supervision. However, as soon as Qaddafi’s supporters proved capable of organizing a serious counter-offensive, the TNC’s tune changed. In his statement, Mackler acknowledged the abrupt shift in attitude:
“Whatever self-organization was evidenced in the earliest days of the mass protest was essentially spontaneous and created to organize the distribution of food and the coordination of vital services as Gadhafi’s forces bombarded Benghazi. We have yet to see any indication that these organizational forms gave rise to or were based on independent political forces aiming at developing a program to advance the interests of the masses. Nor is there evidence that they took on the task of consolidating an alternative to the leading bourgeois and pro-imperialist forces, which fully understood the need to rush to the ‘leadership’ of the mass movement.
“Given the political void among the anti-Gadhafi forces, the TNC was quickly recognized as the nation’s ‘legal’ government….The Europeans’ and Americans’ public pretensions of ‘protecting civilians’ from Gadhafi’s forces rapidly gave way to their real objectives—‘regime change’ pure and simple.”
Characterizing the conflict after NATO’s intervention as an “imperialist-led conquest of Libya,” the SA statement continues:
“The right of self-determination of all oppressed nations, even those led by heinous dictators, must be supported as against imperialist interventions. Imperialism’s defeat in any confrontation with oppressed nations weakens its capacity for future interventions and opens the door wider for others to follow suit. While revolutionary socialists have every right and obligation to criticize and oppose dictatorships everywhere, these criticisms are subordinate to the defeat of imperialist intervention and war. Revolutionaries are not neutral in such confrontations. We are always for the defeat of the imperialist intervener and would-be colonizer.”
This implies, but stops short of explicitly stating, that socialists should have taken a position of militarily supporting Qaddafi’s forces against the imperialists and their TNC proxies (rather than pretending that a revolution was unfolding as Socialist Action and its co-thinkers did). Mackler’s statement also fails to acknowledge the role of the CIA-connected NCLO in organizing the original “Day of Rage,” and instead treats the Benghazi events as essentially spontaneous in origin. He does, however, note that with the TNC’s ascension to power, “we are compelled to recognize the tragic truth that a severe defeat has been inflicted on the Libyan people”:
“Today the imperialist boot is on the ground in Libya and deeply implanted. The Libyan masses have not been liberated. Thousands have been killed. Imperialism’s sights are now focused on doing the same in Syria and eventually in Iran.”
While belated and inadequate, SA’s line change does at least recognize that the overthrow of Qaddafi was a victory for imperialism and a defeat for working people and the oppressed. This represents a clear shift to the left, the origins and ultimate implications of which remain unclear.
Ken Hiebert, a long-time USec supporter in Canada who is critical of Socialist Action’s change of position, inquired why—if March 2011 marked the beginning of “a six-month imperialist-led onslaught that wrought death and destruction on the Libyan people”—SA was “still calling for Victory to the Uprising! as late as April 28, 2011[?] Why is it that only in the September issue of their paper does SA revise its view?” Hiebert suggests that the logic of SA’s new position means that those groups that wanted to see a victory by Qaddafi’s forces against NATO were “more far-sighted than the leadership of SA.” He also wonders, if “the only force that could oppose the imperialist intervention was the Libyan army, shouldn’t we have been supporting the army and it [sic] leadership?” But thus far, to our knowledge, Socialist Action has not chosen to respond.
To avoid promoting politics that lead to “severe defeats” in future, Socialist Action needs to answer Hiebert’s questions and make an honest accounting of the roots of their original mistake and the process through which they came to reject it. They should also explicitly state that in hindsight they recognize the necessity to side militarily with Qaddafi’s forces against NATO.
The policy that Socialist Action retrospectively adopted parallels the one arrived at by David North’s World Socialist Web Site (WSWS—aka Socialist Equality Party [SEP]). Initially the WSWS (18 February 2011) observed:
“The events in Libya are part of the uprising that is engulfing the Middle East and North Africa. The protesters themselves draw a parallel between what is happening in Libya and what has already taken place in Egypt and Tunisia.”
There is no question that the mass mobilizations in Tunisia and Egypt resonated in Libya, and doubtless most of those who demonstrated against Qaddafi saw themselves as participating in a revolt inspired by the overturn of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. But it is also indisputable that the 17 February 2011 “Day of Rage” which kicked off the Benghazi uprising was initiated by the NCLO, which was founded by Libyan “dissidents” with long-standing CIA connections.
Unlike the left groups which began by identifying the Benghazi revolt with those in Tunis and Cairo and then proceeded to claim that a good revolt had been “hijacked” by bad elements, the WSWS did not shrink from the unpleasant truth about the pro-imperialist character of its leadership. While still characterizing the rebellion as a “legitimate popular uprising,” the SEP leadership quickly decided that it was morphing into something else:
“What began as a popular revolt against the repressive Gaddafi regime is increasingly being channelled, with the help of an interim administration in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, into the pretext for an imperialist intervention. Such an operation would seek to establish a de facto client state in Libya. It would help imperialist forces assert control over the country’s large oil and gas fields and serve as a bastion of reaction against the working-class uprisings sweeping the entire region, from Morocco to Iraq.”
• • •
“Inside Libya, Gaddafi’s former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who now heads the opposition National Libyan Council in Benghazi, called for foreign air strikes and a no-fly zone. Citing sources within the council, the New York Times reported that this stance was adopted at a heated council meeting where ‘others strongly disagreed’. There has been deep opposition to such a call within popular protests against Gaddafi, because of fears of a return to neo-colonial rule—fears that Gaddafi is exploiting to posture as a defender of Libyan sovereignty.”
—5 March 2011
When NATO bombing commenced, the question of Libyan sovereignty was indeed clearly posed, and the nature of the conflict changed from being an intra-elite struggle to a fight between a neocolonial regime and a coalition of imperialists and their lackeys. The attitude of Marxists changed accordingly—from defeatism on both sides to military support for Qaddafi and his supporters against the imperialists and their TNC auxiliaries. The WSWS correctly assessed NATO’s intervention as intended:
“to ensure that any regime that replaces Gaddafi serves not the interests of the Libyan people, but rather the demands of Washington and Big Oil. The US hopes to use Libya, moreover, as a base of operations for suppressing revolutionary movements of workers throughout the region.”
—18 March 2011
The next day the WSWS issued the following appeal:
“The World Socialist Web Site calls on workers and young people to reject the war propaganda under a humanitarian guise with the disgust it deserves. The fight against political oppression, social exploitation and war is inseparable from the building of a socialist movement that unites the international working class in a struggle against capitalism and imperialism.”
—19 March 2011
What was missing was a call for military support to Qaddafi’s forces attempting to resist the imperialist assault. This was not an accident—the unwillingness to adopt a Libyan defensist position derives from the SEP’s contention that Lenin’s policy of recognizing the right of all nations to self-determination is no longer applicable. This position was spelled out in a 1994 document entitled, “Marxism, Opportunism and the Balkan Crisis”:
“In politics, terms which had a definite social and class content in one period often come to represent something quite different in the next. This is the case with the slogan of ‘self-determination.’
“Vast changes in world economic and political relations have created corresponding changes in the character of the national movements….
“Can one speak today of the national bourgeoisie of Bosnia, or Kazakhstan or Kashmir seeking to ‘capture the home market,’ thereby creating conditions for the ‘victory of commodity production’ and hence a fuller development of the class struggle?
“On the contrary, these new ethnocentric movements seek the Balkanization of existing states. Rather than proposing to create a home market, they desire more direct economic ties with imperialism and globally-mobile capital. The ‘right to self-determination’ is invoked as a means of advancing the interests of small sections of the local bourgeoisie.”
The political conclusion drawn by the SEP is that “there is no answer to the problems of national divisions” short of socialist revolution. The political logic of such sterile ultimatism was evident in the WSWS treatment of events in Libya. While denouncing the imperialist assault (and accurately describing the TNC as “dominated by recent defectors from the regime, along with CIA assets and other reactionary forces” [24 March 2011]) the SEP’s response was profoundly flawed by its refusal to takes sides in what boiled down to an attempt to re-impose neocolonial rule.
While failing to defend Qaddafi’s forces, the SEP at least pointed out the predatory intent of the NATO powers and their Libyan auxiliaries in the TNC. The same cannot be said for the British Workers Power group (flagship of the League for the Fifth International [L5I]), well known for incongruously combining leftist rhetoric with grossly opportunist positions. It was no surprise to find that Workers Power’s initial take on what it termed the Libyan “revolution” was virtually identical to that of the IMT, CWI, SWP and assorted other revisionists. When NATO started bombing, the L5I loudly denounced the UN-mandated imperialist intervention, while continuing to “unconditionally support” the imperialist quislings of the TNC:
“The rebellion against Gadaffi’s dictatorship deserves unconditional support and that is not altered by the UN decision….
“Those who oppose powerful states have the right to get hold of arms wherever they can and to take advantage of any weaknesses in their oppressors’ situation. That remains true even where the weaknesses are the result of imperialist action. If, under cover of the no-fly zone, Libyan insurgents and revolutionaries can retake positions, undermine the morale or the loyalty of Gadaffi’s troops and even advance on the capital, Tripoli, that is a step forward for the Libyan revolution and should be welcomed.
“At the same time we must oppose the US, British and French attack.”
—“Victory to the Libyan Revolution!,” 19 March 2011
A week later Workers Power sought to explain why, if indeed it opposed the imperialist attack, it refused to side with Qaddafi:
“Others on the left decided to support Gaddafi when the bombs started falling, calling on all the Libyans to form an anti-imperialist united front. This position assumes that the working class should automatically side with those targeted by imperialism, irrespective of political context or the war aims of either side….Are the workers and the poor of Libya supposed to make common cause with Gaddafi so that he can continue his repression of their revolution?”
—“Nato over Libya—the tide begins to turn,” 26 March 2011
Workers Power viewed NATO’s military intervention into what had been a nascent civil war as an opportunity “the forces of the democratic revolution” (i.e., the TNC and its followers) should take advantage of: “It would be bizarre, indeed, to refuse to continue the campaign against Gaddafi’s repressive apparatus because it had been weakened by imperialist action!” (Ibid.). As the months went on, the L5I leadership was compelled to offer a series of shifting rationalizations for supporting NATO’s proxies. In June 2011, the L5I asked: “Are the rebels fighting on the ground simply tools of imperialism? No. First as we have said the NATO powers did not give weapons or munitions to the rebels—i.e. they did not enhance the latter’s independent capacity to overthrow Gaddafi” (“Libya and the struggle against imperialism,” 15 June 2011).
How then to explain the widely-publicized presence of hundreds of NATO and other special forces sent in to stiffen the TNC militias? The article continues:
“Despite having military operations in Libya for three months a direct command structure to liaise between the NATO air force and naval actions and the Benghazi ground forces was only established in early June.”
The existence of a “direct command structure” linking the rebel militias and NATO controllers might seem to most people to be pretty good evidence that the former were being wielded as “tools of imperialism.” Workers Power admitted that the “rebels” not only had a “pro-imperialist counterrevolutionary leadership,” but had been involved in “racist pogroms against sub-Saharan Africans.” Yet none of this made any difference:
“Socialists will always support a genuine mass movement that is fighting for democratic rights against a dictatorship, no matter how ‘anti-imperialist’ their credentials….
“In Poland in the 1980s it was right for socialists to support Solidarnosc as a mass trade-union movement—again despite the pro-capitalist, pro-catholic, policies of its leadership. In France in the Second World War Paris was liberated by a Communist Party led resistance movement that was certainly not anti-imperialist in any sense.
“The crucial perspective within all these social movements is to fight for a revolution within the revolution. Every revolutionary movement carries within it the seeds of a counter-revolution, whether it is the threat of co-option or bureaucratisation. The threat for the Libyan resistance is very real—the TNC is staffed with ex Gaddafi men, pro-privatisation, pro-imperialism and anti-working class.”
Revolutionary movements are not, as a rule, led by those with “pro-imperialist and anti-working class” programs. In Russia in 1921 there was a “genuine mass movement…fighting for democratic rights against a [Bolshevik] dictatorship” that extended from the confused Kronstadt mutineers to the hardened counterrevolutionary officers of the White Army. The “socialists” who supported this movement (like Workers Power and other leftists who backed Lech Walesa and the rest of the capitalist-restorationist leaders of Poland’s Solidarnosc in 1981) were acting as shills for imperialism. In a polemic aimed at Workers Power written a few years prior to the triumph of counterrevolution in the Soviet bloc, we observed:
“The duty of revolutionists is to tell the truth—not to ascribe ‘revolutionary’ dynamics to reactionary political movements. In following the leadership of Solidarnosc, the bulk of the Polish workers were acting against their own historic class interests.”
—”Solidarnosc: Acid Test for Trotskyists,” 1988
The same could be said of those workers in Libya who identified with the TNC. In a statement marking the triumphant entry of NATO’s proxies into Tripoli, Dave Stockton, one of Workers Power’s founding cadres, wrote:
“Those imperialists who once supported him [Gaddafi] have gone over to opposing him and are trying to bring him down—to them we say: get out of the way, this has nothing to do with you, the people of Libya alone will defeat Gaddafi and his wretched cronies….”
—”Should socialists support the Libyan revolution?,” 22 August 2011
Who was Stockton hoping to fool? The “people of Libya” did not bring down Qaddafi—NATO did, as even the newest recruit to Workers Power must be aware. Stockton neatly encapsulates the rightist thrust of the L5I’s crystallized confusionism by observing: “In conclusion, socialists always oppose imperialism but they do not always support those who are fighting imperialism.”
Contrary to Workers Power, revolutionaries always, and without exception, militarily side with those neocolonial forces resisting imperialist aggression. It is impossible to “always oppose imperialism” without also militarily supporting those who resist attempts to reimpose neocolonial rule, however unpalatable their leaders may be. This policy, which originated with the Third (Communist) International under Lenin, and was upheld by the Fourth International of the 1930s and 1940s, retains all its validity today for reasons Trotsky spelled out over 70 years ago:
“The struggle of the oppressed peoples for national unification and national independence is doubly progressive because, on the one side, this prepares more favorable conditions for their own development, while, on the other side, this deals blows to imperialism. That, in particular, is the reason why, in the struggle between a civilized, imperialist, democratic republic and a backward, barbaric monarchy in a colonial country, the socialists are completely on the side of the oppressed country notwithstanding its monarchy and against the oppressor country notwithstanding its ‘democracy.’
“Imperialism camouflages its own peculiar aims—seizure of colonies, markets, sources of raw material, spheres of influence—with such ideas as ‘safeguarding peace against the aggressors,’ ‘defense of the fatherland,’ ‘defense of democracy,’ etc. These ideas are false through and through. It is the duty of every socialist not to support them but, on the contrary, to unmask them before the people.”
—“Lenin and Imperialist War,” 30 December 1938