The leaders of the U.S., Britain and France claim that their current bombardment of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya is motivated by a desire to aid one of the ongoing struggles for democracy in the Arab world. As usual, they are lying. The same imperialists who invaded and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq – and who support Israel as it slaughters Palestinians – have not suddenly discovered a concern for the oppressed.
On the contrary, the assault on Libya has become a key part of the imperialists’ effort to stem the rising tide of mass struggle in the region. They hope to install a new government in oil-rich Libya that can act as a more reliable enforcer of their interests than the erratic Qaddafi. Importantly, they saw an opportunity to cover their defense of the rest of the region’s rulers from the threat of revolution by appearing to side with at least one people fighting an oppressive dictator. Thus at the same time that the U.S. was preparing its attack on Qaddafi’s forces, its allies were murderously cracking down on the mass protest movements in Bahrain and Yemen. And overall, the imperialists aim to assert their power to intervene militarily where and whenever they deem it necessary.
We say, Down with the Imperialist Intervention in Libya! because imperialism represents the biggest and most immediate threat to the masses of Libya and the region. Only the masses have the right to oust Qaddafi and only the strategy of international socialist revolution led by a revolutionary party can achieve a positive outcome in the end. For Workers’ Revolutions Across North Africa and the Middle East!
Before launching their attack on Libya, the imperialists had been on the retreat for months, in the face of the explosion of popular struggle against the dictatorships that rule the Middle East. With its massive oil wealth and key shipping routes, the region has long been of vital importance to the great powers. Since direct colonial rule ended after World War II, the imperialists have relied on local dictators to do the dirty work for them in keeping the masses down and the region open to exploitation. Yet in recent months one after another of these strongmen has been toppled or challenged.
First, protests and general strikes in Tunisia demanding “Bread and Freedom” sent long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing into exile. Then weeks of protests culminated in a wave of strikes that finally forced Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak from power. Soon, the words “ash-sha’ab yurid isqat an-nizam” – “the people want to bring down the regime” – were being chanted by protesters in every major city in the Arab world.
Fearing that they were losing control of the entire region, the imperialists have been desperate to stem the mounting popular rebellion and reassert their authority. At the same time, they have recognized that openly backing a violent crackdown on the protests would only encourage greater struggles against them. Then the outbreak of civil war in Libya presented the imperialists with an opportunity.
The rebellion in Libya had originally broken out as part of the broad upsurge of popular struggle against the region’s rulers. Several cities, particularly in the East of the country, fell into the protesters’ hands. But a counter-offensive saw Qaddafi’s forces soon poised to re-conquer the center of rebel power in the city of Benghazi. There, the bourgeois Transitional National Council (TNC) declared itself the rebel’s official leadership and loudly called on the imperialists to intervene to save them. “We have an opportunity to establish a new narrative of Western support for Arab democrats,” wrote former Obama White House foreign policy adviser Anne-Marie Slaughter in a New York Times op-ed urging the U.S. to join Britain and France’s calls for a military intervention against Qaddafi.
Not surprisingly, the “narrative” of siding with a mass struggle for democracy was a smokescreen covering new efforts to put an end to the mass struggles in the region. Thus the U.S. worked with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to secure an endorsement by the Arab League of an attack on Qaddafi’s forces, while it simultaneously signaled its acceptance of the Saudi and UAE’s plan to aid Bahrain’s dictatorship with an invasion force of thousands of troops to help smash the protest movement there. One liberal commentator expressed shock at seeing “American tanks, guns and tear gas” being used “to crush a peaceful democracy movement” and make “blood run through the streets of Bahrain.” But as an unnamed foreign policy adviser to various White House administrations commented to the Financial Times: “The place where we have the least interest in the Middle East is Libya … the place where we have the greatest interest is Bahrain,” strategically located between Saudi Arabia and Iran and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet that polices the region.
In the early part of his reign of over 40 years, Qaddafi promoted himself as a leader of Arab and African resistance against imperialism, and even as a socialist. But in reality he was always a capitalist ruler who favored nationalist capitalist development and used anti-imperialist rhetoric to win support as he balanced between the great powers during the Cold War.
While the imperialists have been able to use their past demonization of Qaddafi to help justify singling him out for attack, in recent years they had warmly embraced his dictatorship in return for his opening up Libya’s oil resources and overall economy to greater exploitation, repressing Islamist political forces and rounding up African immigrants into concentration camps to prevent them crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.
Indeed, Qaddafi has expressed his hostility to the Arab struggle for democracy from the beginning. He condemned the Tunisian masses for rising up “as if it was the Bolshevik or the American revolution” and expressed his hope that the dictator Ben Ali could be returned to power. Then, when protests began in Libya against his own dictatorship, Qaddafi spoke out in an attempt to remind the imperialists of his loyalty to them as “an important partner in fighting al Qaeda.” He appealed to the European imperialists’ racist hostility to immigrants, warning them that “there are millions of blacks who could come to the Mediterranean to cross to France and Italy, and Libya plays a role in security in the Mediterranean.” Finally, when the imperialists began complaining about Qaddafi’s massacre of rebels, he repeated his assertion that the rebels were nothing but armed supporters of al Qaeda and favorably compared his attacks on rebel-held cities to Israel’s monstrous bombing of Gaza in 2009: “even the Israelis in Gaza, when they moved into the Gaza strip, they moved in with tanks to fight such extremists. … It’s the same thing here!”
Many liberals and even leftists support the imperialist intervention on the grounds that there was no other way to rescue the rebels from Qaddafi’s tanks and planes. For example, Gilbert Achcar, a frequent contributor to the press of the United Secretariat for the Fourth International (the USec itself formally opposed the intervention) tried to qualify his support for imperialist intervention by saying that “we must express defiance and advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don’t go beyond protecting civilians as mandated by the [Security Council] resolution” – as if the imperialist powers ever intended not to interpret the resolution as they wished. Such a stance gives the imperialists left cover for their plans to dominate Libya and to restrain all the revolutions in the Arab countries.
Especially since the start of the attack on Qaddafi’s forces, others on the left have portrayed the Libyan dictator as a progressive opponent of the West, ignoring the brutal and exploitative reality of his decades of rule, as well as his open embrace of imperialism in recent years. But no such illusions are necessary for genuine working-class socialists to stand for the defense of Libya, without giving one ounce of political support to Qaddafi and his regime. The fact is that the revival of the imperialists’ power to attack the dominated and exploited countries of the “Third World” will threaten the masses everywhere. If the imperialists succeed in toppling Qaddafi they will only do so in order to install a new oppressive regime, as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At the same time, other leftists who hold no such illusions in Qaddafi have argued that the protests against him have, from the outset, been completely different in nature from the popular struggles sweeping the rest of the Arab world. The anti-Qaddafi protesters are, in the words of one such group, nothing but a “cabal of pro-imperialist ‘democrats,’ CIA stooges, monarchists and Islamists.” Such a comment does not distinguish between the Transitional National Council and other “rebel” leaders, on the one hand – and the ranks of fighters and the broader layers of masses who first were inspired to protest Qaddafi’s rule, on the other.
The masses typically launch their struggles still burdened by pro-capitalist leaders – even at times openly pro-imperialist leaders – that do not represent their interests. One of the tasks of revolutionaries is to take the masses’ side whenever they are fighting in their self-defense and for progressive aims, no matter how they are being misled. But revolutionaries do this always with the purpose of not only building the best immediate defense but also to expose the treacherous role of pro-capitalist leaders and ideas. In terms of a general revolutionary approach, the struggle in Libya is no exception.
The TNC is dominated by bourgeois forces including former Qaddafi officials and defecting military officers, as well as forces directly sponsored by the imperialists. It obviously in no way represents a break from imperialism or capitalism and is ready to strike a deal to guarantee imperialist profits and prerogatives just as Qaddafi did.
Like every other people in the Middle East living under the tyranny of dictatorship, Libya’s masses were inspired by the rebellions that toppled Tunisia’s and Egypt’s dictators. Broad numbers across the country rallied to the first calls for protest against Qaddafi’s dictatorship, hoping to win similar democratic victories. To be sure, various anti-working class political forces, from free-market capitalists and liberal democrats to Islamic fundamentalists, sought from the beginning to take advantage of the upsurge of struggle in the hopes of riding it to power. Others soon opportunistically took the side of the masses, including some prominent figures from Qaddafi’s political and military leadership. Some planned all along to invite the imperialists to intervene. But all major forces sought to take advantage of the masses’ upsurge of militancy by promising to fight for their freedom from Qaddafi’s tyranny.
Thus when Qaddafi’s forces sought to attack the masses, it was the duty of revolutionaries to take the masses’ side and fight for the defeat of the dictator’s forces without offering any political support to their leaders. While Qaddafi favorably compared his use of tanks to repress the mass uprising with the Israeli state’s assault on the Palestinians in Gaza, those on the left who pointed to the reactionary views of leaders on the anti-Qaddafi side as reason to take no side betrayed the need to defend the masses against an immediate attack.
But as Qaddafi launched his murderous crackdown, protests for democracy gave way to armed confrontations and the masses were sidelined. At first there were prominent expressions of opposition to foreign intervention within the anti-Qaddafi movement, including signs against intervention at mass rallies. But especially as Qaddafi’s forces dealt defeats to the rebels on the battlefield, bourgeois forces in the Transitional National Council in the anti-Qaddafi stronghold of Benghazi imposed themselves on the struggle as its official leadership, hijacking the movement and tying it to imperialist interests.
In the protests against Qaddafi’s rule and in the fight to defend the masses against the dictatorship’s attacks, revolutionary socialists would have always had the duty to warn of the danger presented by the bourgeois forces imposing themselves on the struggle. But before the imperialist intervention, where all clashes with the regime were immediately concerned with the defense of the masses and their struggle, revolutionaries would have stood for the defeat of Qaddafi’s forces. At that time, while fighting alongside other forces opposed to Qaddafi, revolutionaries and other anti-imperialist fighters would have had to make every effort to promote the independent organization of the workers and oppressed and to advocate a strategy based on international appeals to the masses and their organizations in the region – as the urgently needed alternative to the TNC’s pro-imperialist strategy.
With their military intervention, the imperialists inserted themselves in the struggle as the main overall enemy and working-class internationalists stand for their defeat, supporting protest actions against the intervention and opposing all steps toward the seizure of power by forces like the TNC who base themselves on imperialist support. Instead, revolutionaries have to continue to fight for the independent organization of the workers and oppressed in Libya, and more than ever advocate the strategy of international workers’ revolution as the only solution.
Of course while pursuing this overall perspective revolutionaries stand for the defense of the masses against their most immediate threats. In cases where Qaddafi’s forces were attacking the masses, revolutionaries would look to fight alongside all those resisting them. It is impossible to paint the details of such hypothetical scenarios from afar. But when Qaddafi forces are attacking rebel-held towns in order to crush not just the fighters at this point but the masses in these areas, a bloc with the anti-Qaddafi forces to defend the masses is still very likely necessary.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the mass struggles that pushed the dictators from power had a decisive working-class component and represented the culmination of years of rising workers’ struggles. The revolt in Libya never had such a strong working-class component. For one thing, Libya has a proportionately smaller working class. Its rulers made billions by selling the rights to exploit the country’s oil resources, and Qaddafi outlawed the formation of unions and any other mass organizations that could have sprung into action when the struggle started this year. It was no accident that they imported migrant workers, who are more easily controlled, from Egypt, Tunisia, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia rather than allow the development of a strong indigenous working class. And once Qaddafi began his military crackdown, tens of thousands of immigrant workers fled the country, removing a key working-class force from the Libyan struggle.
As well, Libya has a history of national chauvinism and racism against migrant workers, especially black Africans. This has worked against forging the necessary unity between immigrant workers and native Libyan workers. It is largely the responsibility of the Qaddafi regime, which has used traditional divide-and-rule strategies not only to deepen tribal divisions within Libya but also to pit Libyan workers against sub-Saharan immigrants. In the past decade there have been several episodes of mob assaults on immigrant workers, including a vicious pogrom in October 2000. But racist anti-immigrant attacks have continued in the rebel-held areas today as well, partly based on a racial profiling of Africans suspected of being pro-Qaddafi mercenaries. A defense of immigrant workers is needed throughout Libya.
The Libyan working class’s relative weakness makes it all the more important for revolutionaries to take the lead in fighting for unity with the workers and oppressed peoples of other countries, beginning with the mass movements in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. While strikes demanding not just democracy but also jobs and better living conditions were decisive in ousting the hated rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, the workers have not yet found a revolutionary socialist leadership prepared to fight for the working class to seize power. Instead, their struggles have slowed in the face of military-backed regimes promising to hold democratic elections.
The mass struggles in the Middle East are far from over, but the rebellions in the Arab world can lead to true liberation only when the workers and oppressed realize that they must seize state power and overturn capitalism and imperialist domination. To prepare to lead such socialist revolutions, the most far-sighted, politically conscious workers must come together to build vanguard revolutionary parties. If you agree with this perspective, there is not a moment to waste. Join with us in fighting for the only path that can free humanity from the chains of imperialist-enforced misery, once and for all.
1. Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Fiddling While Libya Burns,” New York Times, March 13, 2011.
2. For a useful description of Washington’s securing of the Arab League’s endorsement of the imperialist attack on Qaddafi’s forces and their collusion with repression in Bahrain, see Pepe Escobar, “Exposed: The US-Saudi Libya Deal,” Asia Times Online, April 2, 2011.
3. See Nicholas D. Kristoff, “Bahrain Pulls a Qaddafi,” New York Times, March 16, 2011; and “Blood Runs Through the Streets of Bahrain,” New York Times, February 17, 2011.
4. Richard McGregor and Daniel Dombey, “Foreign Policy: a Reticent America,” Financial Times, March 23, 2011.
5. Global Detention Project, Libya Detention Profile, November 2009.
6. “Libyan Leader Regrets Ben Ali’s Fall,” Al Jazeera, January 17, 2011.
7. “Western States Need Libyan Partnership: Gaddafi,” Reuters, March 7, 2011.
8. “Gadhafi: Crackdown on Libya Revolt is Like Israel’s War on Hamas in Gaza,” Haaretz, March 7, 2011.
9. Gilbert Achcar, “Libyan Developments, ZSpace, March 19, 2011.
10. Spartacist League, “Defend Libya Against Imperialist Attack!,” March 20, 2011.
11. This approach of standing for the military defense of all forces fighting the masses’ immediate enemy while at the same time advancing the cause of an independent working-class struggle for power was first developed by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in the course of the Russian revolution. For more on this approach, see Sy Landy, “Self-Determination and Military Defense: the Marxist Method,” Proletarian Revolution No. 59 (Summer 1999).
12. Among those who saw no side to take between Qaddafi and the masses and uttered not a word of concern for the victims of Qaddafi’s repression were the Spartacist League and its splinter the Internationalist Group; see their statements on the question at www.icl-fi.org/english/leaflets/libya.html and www.internationalist.org/defendlibyadefeatusunnatoassault1103.html respectively.
13. “Pogrom,,” The Economist, October 12, 2000.