Joe Thorne spent a week in Western Libya during June.
The following is a series of disconnected notes responding to the questions which I am most often asked about my visit, which was an observer of, but not at all a participant in, events. As a communist returning from a civil war – one which is, in some sense, a revolution, but ultimately no more than a bourgeois one – the most frequent question I’ve been asked is: is there any visible class or political division within the rebel camp? The blunt answer to this, at least in the West, is: no.
The economic base
Within Western Libya, the every-day economy is not currently organised in a capitalist way (although by no means a communist one either). Around 80% of the population have fled to refugee camps in Tunisia, and there are hardly any commercial businesses operating – perhaps a small shop selling cigarettes here and there. All food is provided by international aid organisations or imported centrally by the rebels, and distributed for free. Basics, such as petrol, are allocated centrally by the military council. Hardly anyone works for money now: all those who have stayed are staying to fight, tend to the injured, do media or humanitarian work, or simply – as in the case of many older people – to stay in solidarity with those who are doing those things.
I can’t give a complete overview over how, more generally, the rebel economy is working. My understanding is something like as follows. The National Transitional Council has created its own bank, a high-street or commercial bank rather than a central bank. Libyans who are still economically active (including, apparently, many who are living by selling capital goods such as farm animals in Tunisia) are depositing the proceeds in this bank, which is then lending this money to support the rebellion, on the basis that it will be repaid once it has won.
Meanwhile, within Western Libya, the old Libyan high-street banks are closed, except one branch which is open once a week and from which people can withdraw limited amounts of money on production of proof of identity. The bank which is operating this scheme has no way of checking anyone’s balance, so is keeping a running total of what has been ‘withdrawn’. When the banking system resurrects itself, this sum will be subtracted from people’s prior balance, and if there is a deficit they will apparently have to make it up.
Things may be different in the East, where a much lower proportion of Libyans have fled, but in the West there is obviously no material basis for class struggle – in a real sense, Gaddafi is the main threat. However wealthy they were before, everyone eats the same food now. It’s a war economy. The same is not necessarily true of the diaspora in Tunisia. Some drive nice cars, others are staying in refugee camps. However, I am not aware of any conflict that has followed from this.
Tribalism and politics
In The Commune previously, we had published research which suggested that the civil war might have taken on a tribal dimension. That is, rather than being based on liberal democratic politics, it was based on sectarian competition for resources and power. Without having access to senior rebel figures, I can only comment on the popular sentiment, which in the West is markedly and avowedly anti-sectarian. Rebels from Tripoli are fighting in the West along with the local Amazigh (Berber) rebels. Repeatedly, wherever rebels were from, rebels emphasised their solidarity with each other, their desire for a united Libya, and how the rebellion had brought them even closer together. It was emphasised several times that Gaddafi used to encourage tribalism, setting Amazigh against Arab, and against the other tribes. So there is a reaction to that.
It is also worth being aware that the Libyan diaspora, including in the UK (and particularly in Manchester, the major centre for that community have heavily mobilised to support the rebellion. That means money and it means people with medical skills returning to help. Apparently a large proportion of the pick-up trucks used as the main military vehicle in the West were bought second hand in the UK (where they are very cheap), and brought through Tunisia somehow. It also means people going over to fight. What long-term ramifications this will have, if any, I don’t know – but it is interesting to consider the impact having participated, albeit at some remove, in a civil war will have on the diaspora in the West.
Politically, there are differing ideologies which motivate rebels. Some (typically older) have the idea that “God gives every tyrant a certain number of chances, but if he wastes them, then god will depose him”. There is a passage from the Koran which says something like this. Others (more, in my perception) want a western-style liberal democracy – no small number have spent time abroad, including in the UK. Obviously they know that our society isn’t perfect, but basic freedom of assembly, of language, to read and discuss at will, to vote, etc. – all these things are enough of a motivation. So there’s two different perspective there: a positively democratic one, which I think is probably the stronger, but also a more conservative one which sees the rebels as God’s agents in providing a check to tyranny – more like a typical ancien regime peasant’s view of an anti-monarchical insurrection.
NATO and intervention
This section should be read as rough notes, and a contribution to a debate, not a finished perspective.
Whilst I was there, rebels tended to be highly critical of NATO. Their view was that NATO was not doing enough to help them. Indeed, as it has been pointed out elsewhere, NATO seems not to be especially interested in helping the rebels beat Gaddafi in the field, and more in bombing bunkers in Tripoli. It is possible that this is a product of a strategic orientation toward provoking a coup from within the Gaddafi regime, to remove the dictator and his family, but to allow the remainder to compromise with the rebel armies, and usher in a new regime based on similar interest blocs as the old one.
Within The Commune, most of those who have participated in our internal debate (see here for a few extracts) tend to say, straightforwardly, that if we were able we ought to try to stop the ongoing NATO intervention. I find this position more difficult than most people, simply because it seems possible that the material affect of stopping the intervention may be simply for the rebellion to be crushed, autocracy to be restored, and alot of people with basic democratic aspirations to get killed.
(A caveat for the debate: this was certainly true when the intervention began, but currently it is debatable how far it is the case, since NATO isn’t putting tremendous amounts of effort into attacking Gaddafi’s tanks and heavy weapons – but since I’m not a military analyst, I don’t want to try and estimate exactly how important it is at the moment for ensuring the basic survival of the rebellion.)
In the past, communists have been for the victory of bourgeois-democratic revolutions (of which the rebellion in Libya is an example), and participated in them, constituting an independent pole as much as possible. So although, in general, we don’t take sides between bourgeois factions, when one of those factions is seeking to establish ‘democratic’ space against the background of complete totalitarianism, I don’t think we’re neutral about that, and our general perspective would probably be something like ‘fight against the old regime, but maintain independence from the new bourgeoisie’. I think most of us probably accept that in general, and in Libya, that would mean fighting against Gadaffi.
This obviously poses a problem when imperialism’s intervention in some way supports such a revolution. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate how far this is the case. As indicated above, it’s doubtful that NATO is trying to straightforwardly help the rebels, and certainly not ‘democracy’ as a principle. They’d be happy with a dictator, or a highly corrupt, oligarchic system, democratic only in formality, who would secure their influence. This may well be what happens. I also don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which this is an important phenomenon in the world system. Contra the arguments of the AWL (who think it to have been true in the Kosovo war, the fighting between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, and the occupation of Iraq, for example), I don’t think this has ever been the case before in the current period. In Kosovo where the AWL, as it were, got their way (insofar as there was no successful movement against war), thousands of innocent Kosovans were killed as a result. The same is true in Iraq.
I also don’t want to place too much faith in the Libyan rebels, or rather their leadership. It is quite possible that a new dictatorship will emerge from within the rebellion, as it has before – in the case of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, for example, who used alot of democratic and socialist rhetoric during the anti-colonial struggle in Rhodesia, and was the object of ‘critical solidarity’ from sections of the left. However, I also don’t want to say that automatically any non-revolutionary democratic struggle in the current period will turn to despotic reaction. (I think Trotsky had a view something like this.) This amounts to defeatism, unless we think that communist revolution is on the cards immediately, in the way a democratic rebellion obviously is. Surely Libyans have a right to try.
However, those caveats aside, I disagree with those comrades who believe that our general opposition to imperialism necessarily amounts to specific attempts to stop it doing everything, at all times, with absolutely no regard for the consequences. It seems to me that there needs to be a balance between our analysis of the overarching character of imperialism, and an analysis of the particular things it does. It surely can’t be the case that we’re totally indifferent to whatever happens as a result of our actions.
I have heard several arguments against this. One is that imperialism always poses (at least in the current period) everything it does in terms of an immediate humanitarian crisis (or other crisis posing a grave risk to civilians) to which it must respond. Consequently, to fall into the trap of accepting that the consequences of intervention either happening or not happening are the metric by which the question is judged, it is said, to play imperialism’s game – to accept the moral paradigm. According to this view, imperialism constantly expresses itself through a series of particular choices, of which each, or at least the most important, may seem individually ‘humanitarian’, but the total effect of the systemic dynamic over time is totally malign.
But this isn’t true. It has been both possible and necessary to oppose imperialism’s particular plans over the past several decades on grounds of what they have actually proposed to do, and the actual consequences which would flow from that. Of course, they postured over Kosovo, Iraq, and they posture still over Palestine. But it is perfectly possible to see through such postures and expose them on the ground of materialist analysis of what is actually going on. If it is possible to do that in the case of Libya, somebody should do it. If people don’t care what happens as a consequence of things they do, they should say so outright: and we can have the conversation on that basis. Reacting to things solely in terms of the ideas they represent on a general level is purest idealism.
Another important line of debate over this question goes as follows. If it’s the case that we have to take some responsibility for the predictable consequences of our actions (as I imply), what about strikes for economic objectives which would hurt the war effort? This is hardly an issue for the NATO campaign in Libya, but during World War II, it was very important: and the Communist Party of Great Britain opposed workers striking, on the grounds that it would hinder the war effort, which was by then being carried out in alliance with the USSR.
However, I think we can agree that just because we would oppose one thing to stop a war, it doesn’t mean we should stop another. We could support strikes such as those mentioned during WWII, yet think it would be reactionary to go around chopping down electricity pylons, or damaging railway tracks as acts of general sabotage. The point is that mass strikes potentially express the sort of class dynamic that can, in the long run, exceed its apparent limits, and point the way to a movement beyond the choices which bourgeois politics provides to us. Such dynamics are the whole basis of what we are trying to achieve politically. But what if a mass anti-war movement was willing and able to begin invading NATO air force bases in Italy today? Perhaps then, again, the mass class dynamic would be important enough to over-ride the specific consequences, in Libya, of the movement’s success as such. But, then again, that is only a ‘perhaps’: merely by being large and against a particular government policy, movements are not necessarily communistic – if their basic demand is for something reactionary.
So: I don’t know what conclusion to draw on this question. Most members of the group are confidently anti-intervention – yet no one has produced a comprehensive articulation of this position.
The need for an analysis of contemporary imperialism
Colonialism, anti-colonialism, world-war, and dual-imperialist cold war are no longer the defining paradigms of the interstate system in the way in which they were throughout most of the 20th Century. We are now in a period of quasi-permanent asymmetric war, post-colonial ‘anti-imperialist’ militias (often with ‘Islamist’ or, less importantly, pseudo-socialist ideologies), and ‘humanitarian intervention’ by the UN or NATO as the ideological paradigm for the West’s military adventures abroad. The significance of these features, and their real, material operation, in Libya and elsewhere, needs to be better analysed.