Opposition to the military intervention in Libya has been muted in the UK, and positions on the left have been exposed by the tension between support for democratic struggle in the Middle East and a deep distrust of Western motives. This is an edited version of an online discussion between Commune members between 20-25 March, which aimed not at expressing a final position but exploring some of the contradictions.
Dave Spencer: Perhaps because I am from Coventry and was born during the Blitz, I am totally opposed to the bombing of civilians. Of course the imperialists have their own agenda which up till now has included links with Gaddafi. However I think the Stop the War position [blanket opposition] is wrong.
If the intervention of the imperialist allies leads to the victory of democratic forces in Libya, then that is a good thing for the revolutionary process taking place in the Middle East which will be a beacon to the rest of the world. The question for the imperialists is whether they can control this situation. They haven’t much option but to try… The international working class at the moment is asleep. To stand any real chance of organising there need to be a few democratic freedoms.
I think any analysis should stem from basic principles. Opposition to the massacre of civilians is a basic principle. Revolutionary struggle from below is another. Support for the working class within that revolutionary struggle is another.
Shlomo Anker: The Left articles I read… all ignore what the Arab Masses and specifically Libyan Masses are saying. I am not saying they all support the Air Strikes and I am not saying they are right, but I am saying their opinion is being ignored. The fact that the people of Benghazi seem to be pro-air strikes should just be added to our opinion (although i’m not saying we should agree with them on everything)….I think Benghazi’s population is 600,000. And there were 3 main rallies calling for a No Fly Zone and estimates were between 10,000 to 50,000 people attending. Tahrir square demos had the same numbers and Cairo is 17 million people. So I think there is no question there is mass support for the No Fly Zone in Benghazi. Not sure about Tripoli. In terms of the Arab Street, in Palestine etc, just judging from friends, blogs, facebook groups, there is far more support for this than Iraq War, and extremely low opposition (in comparison to Gaza War, Iraq War).
Mark E: I’d like to know who the opposition to Gaddafi is and what is the basis of their support. Secondly, which sections of society are backing Gaddafi? Why was there no mass uprising in Tripoli? No doubt if Gaddafi had retaken Benghazi there would have been reprisals but I’m not convinced there was a big risk of a humanitarian disaster. However, it would have been good to see the Gaddafi regime fall and I am disappointed that the rebellion is under threat but I can only conclude that the support for Gadaffi is a lot broader then we have been led to expect by the western media. As such I’m sceptical whether western intervention is going to resolve anything here although I must admit I have wavered in this I don’t want to see the rebellion fail either! Having said that, though, undoubtedly there is a mix of motives for this intervention including a recognition of the strategic importance of Libya’s oil as well as a liberal humanitarianism. This doesn’t make it easy to take a position without that analysis of the composition of Libyan society.
David Broder: I am not sure to what extent the fact of the rebellion demands any less criticism of what France, UK, US etc are doing. Is this really so different from what our attitude would be to the US bombing a peaceable but totalitarian régime’s military installations? Monstrous though Gaddafi’s crimes (particularly in recent weeks) are, they actually pale in comparison to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. ‘Inaction’ in 2003 would also have meant allowing him to continue crushing the population, but it was clearly right to oppose the war.
The so-called no-fly-zone has the clear intention of reviving the idea of humanitarian intervention and thus could have far wider, more dangerous consequences than is immediately obvious. Moreover, since the régime is not cracking apart like in Egypt, it could just mean a longer and more deadly war and harsher reprisals by the régime = more deaths. Of course, the intervention does not in any way justify such actions, but presumably it will be useful for Gaddafi’s propaganda purposes. Given that the rebellion is/was on the verge of defeat, I find it hard to see how these latest actions will help it win the popular support which it apparently lacks
Of course we should defend the rebels’ right to organise and other such civil liberties regardless of their politics. But while they know the situation better than us, we also have to consider who they are and what they want. Are the calls for western intervention representative of the whole movement, is this movement representative of popular opinion? In Iraq democrats like [Ahmed] Chalabi supported the 2003 US-UK invasion, but that certainly didn’t represent the will of the majority of the population.
Taimour Lay: Was the rebellion on the point of defeat because of lack of popular support or because of the imbalance of arms? Mark rightly wonders why Tripoli did not ‘rise up’ – it’s impossible for us to say. It may be that the security services were that much more concentrated there, or this was seen as a revolt by ”them” (the easterners/Warfalla ”tribe”) or the state was able to placate them quickly through patronage and oil money. Or, as was the case in Tajura, a district of Tripoli which hit the streets quite early on, the crackdown was hard.
If it’s about an imbalance of arms, presumably this bombing will be accompanied by the funnelling of arms to the ”rebels”, who will be encouraged to hold their ground and then move west.
So a long, messy, protracted, western-fuelled civil war? Or an unopposed crackdown by Gaddafi on Benghazi followed by a long period of reprisal? Two bad options. Are we forced into supporting or opposing this? Can we not simply provide an analysis and see the two bad options as a product of something utterly rotten and dysfunctional? Or is that copping out?
The humanitarian aspect here does exist. It’s too crude to call it a fig-leaf. Surely the uprising has created the conditions in which 1) it can’t be business as usual with Gaddafi, even after he ‘wins’ a civil war and 2) it hobbles domestic opposition to the strikes (unless on pacifist grounds). People were wondering last year: what will be Cameron’s Falklands? Where could he possibly find a war to distract us all? In many ways he can’t have wished for a better combination of circumstances than this one.
Dave: In my opinion it is a matter of basic principle rather than analysis. We are communists and should support democratic revolution from below. There is a process of revolution from below starting in the Middle East which might even spread further. The revolt in Libya against Gaddafi is part of this process. The situation in Iraq was quite different….We cannot support Gaddafi and we cannot say “Leave it to the Libyan people themselves,” since Gaddafi has massive fire power. We must be for the rebels and against the dictators. Calling for “analysis” seems to me like fiddling while Rome burns.
Mark: Dave’s view is that communists should support democratic revolutions in principle, and therefore unreservedly. On the surface I think this is a reasonable position to take and indeed I can’t recall any time where I have not supported such a principle, when the issue has arisen. However, we have to be careful here in that we shouldn’t fetishise bourgeois democracy at the expense of a commitment to proletarian democracy and communism. What would be of interest to me in the currrent situation in Libya would be whether there any working class initiatives which go beyond a formal bourgeois democracy; and if not, why not?
Secondly, taking a stand on the principle in support of bourgeois democracy does not entail that we call for its enforcement using any means necessary. There is no necessary logical step that we must take from supporting the Libyan uprising to calling for western military intervention in its support. Even if we agreed that military intervention would be a positive thing, this is a separate argument from supporting a democratic revolution. So for example, would we have called for NATO military intervention in support of Hungarian workers in 1956 and Czechoslovak workers in 1968? I think we would have supported the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe around that time and indeed I’m sure we all did around 1989 but calling for military intervention is a different matter. Why? Because not only does it change the character of the revolution from one ‘from below’ to one which depends predominantly on being enforced ‘from above’ (literally in the case of Libya) but the dynamic of military intervention is likely to favour the consolidation of western dominance of the region.
So while I agree with Dave and Shlomo that we should support these democratic revolutions I’m unconvinced that this means we necessarily then have to support western intervention. However, I would be convinced that western intervention is something that we need to support if it was likely that it would forestall some form of genocide. I may be wrong but there is nothing to suggest that this is likely to occur if Gaddafi’s troops retake Benghazi.
I think we can simply provide an analysis which in the end might not come down on one side or the other. There may not be a good choice between support for military intervention and allowing the civil war to unfold without that. It may be that either way will not be beneficial for the Libyan people. I’d rather see them try to deepen the revolution into a social revolution – in which case they would never get the support of the governments of the West….
Barry Biddulph: Today in Libya, Egypt and so on, why would democracy be limited to bourgeois democracy? The Arab revolution is not restricted in advance to bourgeois democracy. We should support and call for mass democracy from below. Simply raising questions is not enough. But we cannot support “western” intervention. Britain France and USA have their own agenda as we have seen. Their humanitarianism is pure hypocrisy. Western imperialism plays into Gaddafi’s hands and discredits the opposition in the eyes of the Arab masses.
Talk of a countrywide massacre was propaganda and exaggerated. If the western imperialists wanted the rebels in Benghazi to defend and organize themselves they would have supplied arms to the rebels as requested. The breathing space was for the imperialists to impose control over the revolutionary process.
Let’s not fall into the trap of saying Cameron is more civilised than Gaddafi so we support the coalition. The death and destruction caused by western wars is hardly a lesser evil or something to give critical support.
Joe Thorne: It is a difficult debate. There are basically two positions on the revolutionary left (no one says “support intervention”, I believe). These are: “oppose intervention” (everyone except AWL) and: “No trust in or support for the US and other imperialist powers! If they impose a no fly zone over Libya or bomb Qaddafi’s forces, they will do it in their own brutal way and for their own cynical, profit-ensuring reasons! Solidarity with the Libyan revolution, and specifically democratic and working-class forces within it!” (AWL)
The pointed thing about it, of course, to be considered alongside the broadly positive content of the words themselves, is that they avoid opposing the bombing of Libya. What I’d say is that you can “neither support nor oppose” in principle, but it’s not necessarily a catch-all response to get you out of engagement. All these slogans only mean something on the basis that they express positions we would implement practically if we were able to, or close to being able to doing so.
What if the movement was in a position to stop the bombing? For example, if we had influence in the armed forces? What then? You’d have to jump one way or another. Just like if you were to say “neither for nor against the invasion of Iraq” in 2003, it would be politically indefensible. So what makes this different? Could be a few things. But not necessarily obvious qualitative differences.
We can be both against intervention, and against Gaddafi (and hence take no responsibility for either). The difficulty comes with the point that a movement in this country would immediately have much more capacity to practically implement one side of that equation than the other: i.e. it could more easily stop intervention than Gaddafi. I can’t see a way out of it based on the assumption that one must take responsibility for whatever results from one’s slogans being implemented in practice, but in isolation from an international communist workers’ movement which would have the capacity to make them more than purely negative.
Mark: I’m not in favour of supporting military intervention. However, to actively oppose it is be complicit in the crushing of that rebellion – let’s say by disrupting the intervention (if we had communists in the armed forces or military suppliers – which would be more likely).We would be thanked by Gaddafi but not by the rebels, at least by those who have spoken in favour of intervention. This is not a good position to be in.
So maybe neutrality towards the intervention is a reasonable stance to take in this case? I don’t know. That would mean of course a policy of non-disruption of the intervention. In a sense it would mean being complicit in the re-assertion of western influence in the region if that occurred (which is likely), but as the AWL say it could be opposed in other ways, along with building solidarity links with the left elements of the rebellion.
Barry: But now imperialist intervention gives credibility to Gaddafi and will help establish an imperialist friendly regime that will not allow revolutionaries to operate, to put it mildy. Imperialist intervention could lead not to averting a defeat in Benghazi, as asserted by the AWL, but to an overall defeat for the revolution.
Adam Ford: To be a communist is to take the side of the working class, and the working class only. Not one faction or other of the ruling class, in the (mistaken, in my view) belief that they would treat working class people better. Therefore we must oppose imperialist intervention in all its forms, including the policing of a ‘no-fly zone’ against the Gaddafi regime. (Even the no-fly thing is now clearly a figleaf, after the bombing of the Gaddafi compound and other targets – they want regime change).
‘The rebels’ are not a homogenous block. As always, there are class divisions. Many of the self-appointed ‘Transitional’ leaders are ex-Gaddafi generals, who saw that they were losing a few weeks ago, or saw an opportunity to step out from Gaddafi’s shadow, and went over to the other side. They are the ones providing most of the equipment being used to fight Gaddafi’s forces, and they will demand positions of power over the working class should they be victorious. The democratic (and behind them, material) aspirations of the working class will not be met by holdovers from the Gaddafi regime, any more than they will be met by holdovers from the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt respectively.
It is western imperialism that creates the power of Middle Eastern dictators, and it is only the power of the international working class that can overthrow them. Mubarak fell precisely at the point when a strike wave went through Egypt, and the same appears to be happening in Bahrain. This is where the power of working class people lies – not begging arms from this or another general for an insurrection, or begging support from imperialists.
Joe: The distinction AWL makes is between a general opposition to both sides (which they say they have, and which most but not all of them probably hold sincerely); and an agitational slogan meant to secure a specific outcome, in a context in which our slogans would – we could imagine – have impact only against one of the sides which we oppose. Now, you could argue that this sort of analysis amounts to assuming a strong movement here, but not there (since it would need to be supported), as the hypothetical context in which the slogan’s value would be tested – and that this is patronising, or just ad hoc and baseless. But neither is it inconceivable that a strong enough movement here would never be faced with a Libya-type situation abroad.
There’s a culture on the ultra-left and among left communists of proclaiming, quite abstractly, opposition to almost everything, and then sitting back and feeling well pleased with the avoidance of trad left mistakes. A lot of the time, there’s something in this. But what it misses, and what some Trots have due to a stronger and more engaged activist tradition, is a sense of the potential material consequences of raising a slogan: it’s not just raised in order to give a specific expression to the general position of independence from all sides, it’s actually meant as something which they intend [...] to realise.
With respect to the power of the working class. It isn’t expressed in a universal way, independent of the real level of development and form of the economy. An oil based economy without a developed industrial base, or indeed a developed ruling class outside of the state clique, such as Libya, is far less vulnerable to the sort of strikes (outside oil) that finished off Mubarak. This is the pattern in spigot economies throughout Africa and the Middle East. Any mass revolutionary movement at all was always likely to take on a military character.
Mark: My question, then: Is anti-imperialism a principle or a position which depends on situational context, so that there can be exceptions to taking an anti-imperialist stance? Similarly, is humanitarianism a principle or a position which depends on situational context, so that there can be exceptions to acting on humanitarian grounds? If both are principles then we are then in the realms of philosophical debate at best.
Joe: Of course, we don’t come to the question fresh, naive, and without a pre-existing analysis of imperialism. But that analysis ought to feed in to how we see the particular dynamics, not substitute for them.
Dave: I think we need to understand imperialism at a time of a recession in global capitalism…The USA cannot go throwing its weight about like it used to, even if it wanted to. We also need to analyse this new phenomenon of the democratic revolutions. There are imperialist powers in a mess and the masses rising up against this mess to change their regimes. They are asking for support in Libya from the imperialist powers. The imperialist powers are in a spot. Of course they have their own agenda and of course you can’t trust them. But if they go beyond what is asked from them by the rebels they will be discredited in the eyes of the world. If the intervention works then more rebellions can be expected.
Barry: The western intervention is popular at the moment with the population of Benghazi, but in the medium and long term the imperialist damage to the interests of the Arab Masses could be greater. And looking to western intervention will weaken any independent fight from below. when those Northern Ireland Catholics in Belfast in 1969 celebrated the arrival of British Troops, little did they know what lay ahead: internment,Bloody Sunday , death squads. Tony cliff and the IS group did not oppose the intervention of British troop claiming the troops would provide a breathing space of safety for the Catholics to organize. In fact the troops undermined the independent organisation of the nationalists as Catholics looked to the troops for security. The intervention of the troops was not progressive,but provided space for a British imperialist solution.
Has the leopard changed its spots? Imperialism is not progressive as claimed by the AWL. Can imperialist intervention in the interests of the capitalist ruling class in France Britain and the USA simultaneously represent the interests of the international working class or the Arab Masses contrary to the Communist ABC?
And if our rulers can act in this manner indirectly in our interests then surely we can change the domestic coalitions policy as well. Forget class lines; we can cross them. Like a broken clock the Con Dem coalition at home and abroad can sometimes be correct. There will be a time when our interests coincide. This ignores the history of imperialism in general which caused the problems in the region in the first place,shaped the regimes, drew lines on maps dividing the Arab people and it does not take seriously the nature of capitalism or respect the history of independent working class opposition.