On January 12, 2013, the French air force began bombing northern Mali. Days later, France invaded with thousands of ground troops backed by tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships. They are fighting on the side of the Malian army, which lost control of that part of the country to an armed rebellion in early 2012. The military offensive is being conducted with the logistical support of the United States and other imperialist powers, and the British government has begun sending ground troops to bolster the effort.
Under cover of the West’s “war on terror,” France’s Socialist Party president, François Hollande, claims that his military action is saving the Malian people from the oppressive rule of Islamist gangs. His defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has declared that the forces under his direction are preventing the creation of “a terrorist state on the doorstep of France and Europe.”
It is indeed true that in the name of their own brands of puritanical Islam, armed forces that came to rule the North have terrorized the area’s population. Beyond imposing the veil on women and banning the consumption of alcohol, some of the most common habits of daily life in Mali were criminalized, from smoking tobacco to playing traditional music, with brutal forms of corporal punishment inflicted on alleged offenders. The rights of Muslims to practice forms of religious observance of their choosing were even attacked, with the mosques and tombs of Sufi Muslims in particular being targeted for destruction. Furthermore, in a region where slavery survives to this day, the anti-slavery activist group Temedt reported that slave owners in the North took advantage of the civil war to recapture slaves they had lost, and that the descendants of slaves were targeted as the first victims of Islamists’ punishments.
France’s invasion has nothing to do with concerns for the plight of people in Mali, however. France’s aim is to save from collapse a military regime that has been engaged in its own brutal reign of terror. As the New York Times described six months ago, since seizing power in a coup last March, Mali’s military rulers have imposed “a worsening climate of repression and intimidation” marked by the beating, torture, murder and disappearance of even some of its most moderate critics.
The problem for France and other imperialist powers has been that they rely on Mali’s military regime to guarantee their capitalists’ access to exploit the country’s resources and keep the masses from challenging their exploitation. But when the regime began to collapse in the face of the armed rebellion in the North, these interests were threatened. In particular, the imperialists feared that northern Mali would become a safe haven for Islamist fighting forces.
By helping the Malian army regain control of the North, the French intervention aims to return to stability a neo-colonial order in Mali, part of broader imperialist-dominated status quo in the region in which the great powers’ strategic and capitalist economic interests are protected above all else. If successful, the invasion will only serve to perpetuate the enslavement of Mali’s people to exploitation, poverty and oppression.
This points to why we are not only opposed to the imperialist intervention in Mali – we stand for its defeat. We will spell out more about how our defeatist position can be a guide for action in both the imperialist countries as well as in Mali, after reviewing the roles of the various forces in the conflict.
France’s claims to be saving the Malian people from themselves are not new. When Mali was one of France’s many colonial possessions, part of an empire that included most of West Africa as well as parts of the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific islands, the Caribbean and South America, the French ruling class justified its empire by claiming that it had a “civilizing mission” to bring enlightenment to primitive peoples. But as its colonial subjects increasingly rebelled and demanded their independence, France waged even more brutal wars of subjugation. And by the time France was finally forced to surrender its foreign possessions, the French people themselves were increasingly recognizing what had been obvious to colonialism’s victims all along: the real mission in the colonies had always been the exploitation of their people and natural resources.
Mali was a French colony until 1960; its borders and those of many other African states are arbitrary territorial divisions that were forcibly imposed by the colonialists. When Mali was finally relieved of the burden of military occupation and direct rule from abroad, state power fell into the hands of a weak indigenous ruling class that relied on military force to maintain itself in power. The main economic enterprises were operated by foreign imperialists, who continued to exploit the country’s mineral and agricultural resources as well as the labor of its workers. The Malian government received a small portion of the profits of these operations in return for keeping order.
Under different governments, this neo-colonial state of affairs was maintained without interruption until 1991. Then, in what became known as the “March Revolution,” a working-class and student uprising against the regime’s corruption and suppression of democracy, as well as against “free market” reforms imposed by imperialism, toppled the government. Two decades of relatively democratic bourgeois rule followed, but the country was still in the imperialist grip. Mali’s debt to imperialist banks was exploited to extract debt repayments by means of “neo-liberal” free-market reforms and cuts to social spending. Public services collapsed, leaving the state hollowed out, especially in the North.
Northern Mali accounts for two-thirds of the country’s total size (the region is 50% bigger than France) but is mainly desert and is home to only 10% of the population. Since independence there were several uprisings by Tuareg people in the North, demanding autonomy or self-determination. The Tuareg are traditionally nomadic pastoralists who occupy a vast swathe of the Sahara and the Sahel, the semi-arid stretch across Africa between the desert and the tropical region to the south. In Mali their population is estimated to be nearly a million; they are the largest group in northern Mali but not a majority. Ever since colonialism established the state of Mali, the Tuareg and other minority peoples have suffered brutality at the hands of Malian regimes.
Armed groups renewed their rebellion against the central government in early 2012. The result was that the peoples of the region endured the horrors of war only to face new rulers that many experienced as even worse than the old. The rebellion was launched by the Tuareg fighters of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), a secular nationalist organization, and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), a largely Tuareg Islamist group (Azawad is the Tuareg name for northern Mali.) Soon other Islamists from various countries, members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Arabic-speaking northern Africa, AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (French initials MUJAO), came to fight in northern Mali. Unlike the MNLA, anti-nationalist Islamists were not seeking independence: they sought to establish an Islamic state throughout Mali and beyond. All these organizations had been greatly strengthened as a military force by fighters who had participated in the Libyan civil war and had fled after the dictatorship’s collapse, bringing with them both advanced weaponry and battlefield experience.
Although the Malian army had received weapons from the imperialist powers and its officers had been trained by the U.S., its poorly paid rank-and-file soldiers were hardly motivated to risk their lives to save the corrupt government. Some soldiers went over to the rebellion; others simply retreated. Military officers reacted by staging a coup and overthrowing the government in March, 2012. Imperialist pressure led to the establishment of a democratic-seeming facade that remained tied to the French overlords.
By April the MNLA had conquered the northern cities and declared Azawad independent; in response the coup leaders in the capital Bamako called for French intervention. But the MNLA fell out with the better-armed Islamists, and in late June it was defeated in the battle of Gao and shoved aside. The Islamists then controlled the North and pressed the war against the government. By early January 2013, they had extended their buffer zone of control southwards to within 285 miles of Bamako, and that is when the French intervened in force.
Thus in the civil war that overran northern Mali in 2012, from the reports available it appears that all the armed groups acted as oppressive gangs of thugs. In addition to the many reports of atrocities by the Islamists and the Malian army, the MNLA likewise was not always seen as the liberators they claimed to be, particularly when the people they conquered were not Tuareg. For example, after the French took over, a New York Times reporter interviewed people in Timbuktu who reported that back then “The Tuareg fighters took control of the city, and for two days they looted its sprawling markets, raped women, stole cars and killed anyone who stood in their way.” When the Islamist Ansar Dine ousted the MNLA, they were at first seen as crime-stopping liberators, until they enforced their own modes of oppression.
The French ruling class’s excuses for invading Mali today are merely a new version of its racist “civilizing mission,” updated to fit its foreign and domestic interests. Abroad, France claims to be fighting to free people from oppression by Islamists and to protect the world from terrorism; this excuse conforms to an age in which U.S.-led imperialism uses the cover of a never-ending “war on terror” to justify its use of military force to control the oil-rich Middle East. At home, millions of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa are now among the most exploited workers and constitute a potentially powerful force of revolutionary working-class struggle; the encouragement of Islamophobia and fears of terrorism help divide the working class and justify police-state measures that are a threat to all.
The invasion of Mali is only the latest effort by the rulers of the imperialist nations to bolster their domination of the so-called “Third World.” By drawing super-profits from their exploitation abroad, the imperialists are better able to stabilize their rule at home, including by conceding comparatively greater democratic freedoms and higher standards of living than in the countries they dominate. That is why we say that imperialism remains the most important means by which the rotten capitalist system preserves its enslavement of the masses everywhere. And that is why, as champions of working-class revolution against capitalism, we stand for the defeat of imperialism’s forces in Mali as a matter of principle as well as of practical urgency.
It is a measure of the cynicism of capitalist society that the value of principles is frequently not appreciated, yet precisely because they transcend the conditions of any specific time and place, and focus firmly on strategic goals, Marxist principles provide an essential guide to action in the class struggle. Our defense of oppressed nations from imperialism and our stand for the defeat of imperialism are just such principles. They communicate clearly to the workers of the imperialist countries that their main enemy is at home – in the form of their own ruling class. They communicate just as clearly to the oppressed masses of the countries dominated and exploited by imperialism that revolutionary communists are unflinching allies in their struggle for freedom. Our anti-imperialist principles are essential for laying the basis for the internationalist unity of the workers and oppressed in the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system and thus rid the world of imperialism and war forever. They frame our approach to the fighting in Mali today.
Accordingly, in the imperialist west, we support demonstrations to protest against the invasion of Mali. We recognize that in France and other imperialist countries, direct forms of working-class action against the invasion – such as the refusal to allow the transportation of war materiel or even strikes – are, for the moment, not a practical possibility so far as we are aware. This is a consequence of the lack of anti-imperialist consciousness of most workers, as well as of the domination of the workers’ movement by the conservative trade union bureaucracy – not to mention the threat of prosecution by the capitalist state. Nonetheless, we explain that we support the idea of such actions in order to raise awareness among working-class revolutionaries and militants of the sort of action that they will be obliged to lead when possible.
We strongly condemn those on the left who support the imperialist assault as a supposed bulwark against Islamist barbarism. One major convert to the imperialist side is the African academic Samir Amin, previously known for his writings and activities against imperialism. In France the defenders of imperialism include the Communist Party and the Front de Gauche (Left Front) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Speaking on behalf of the party in the National Assembly on January 16, FdG deputy François Asensi echoed imperialism’s racist propaganda: “The positions of the deputies of the Left Front, Communists and republicans, is clear: To abandon the people of Mali to the barbarism of fanatics would be a moral mistake... International military action was necessary in order to avoid the installation of a terrorist state.”
In Mali, before the imperialist invasion the people were caught in a civil war among forces of oppressive exploiters. In the South, the masses faced a corrupt and brutal regime; in the North, persecution at the hands of nationalist and Islamist groups. A mass struggle for democratic rights and the interests of the workers and poor people against all those forces was necessary.
Now that the imperialists have invaded Mali, they and the forces aligned with them have become the main enemy and their victims are not just the Islamist groups that are the invasion’s immediate targets. The number of civilians slaughtered by the bombing runs and machine-gun strafings of towns and villages by French jets and helicopter gunships has yet to be established, but atrocities are already being reported. Furthermore, the French invasion has allowed the Malian army to re-take control of parts of the north where it is reportedly brutalizing, murdering and pillaging civilians suspected of being sympathetic with the nationalists and the Islamists. A report by the MNLA on January 28 described “ethnic reprisals ... a manhunt for the Tuareg, Fulani, Sonrai and Arabs is organized by the Malian army and its militias in Azawad.”
Should mass struggles in the imperialist centers, or resistance inside Mali, challenge the invaders’ war effort and lead to their defeat, we recognize that a consequence might be the return of the Islamists or other oppressors to power in the North. But if the imperialists prevail, that will not only mean that the brutal Malian military regime regains its sway in at least much of the North, but also that the imperialists will be emboldened to unleash their killing machines elsewhere. A defeat for the French and allied imperialist forces in Mali would weaken their ruling classes at home and add encouragement to mass struggles of the oppressed everywhere.
In this general sense, in clashes between the imperialists and their opponents, we take a side: we favor the defeat of imperialism and stand in defense of all those under attack by them. At the same time, our opposition to the imperialists does not mean that we call for the oppressed to necessarily pause their struggle against local oppressors, forgo an opportunity to overthrow them or to in any way compromise their ability to defend themselves by necessarily rushing to the defense of those who were, before the imperialist attack, acting as local rulers and oppressors themselves. Indeed, despite the imperialist attack, in concrete instances armed Islamist or nationalist groups may prove a more immediate threat to the masses; under such circumstances necessity dictates that the oppressed must defend themselves against whoever is the most immediate and grave threat to them.
Further, we are not indifferent to the consequences of the tactics chosen in struggles against imperialism. We advocate and support only those forms of struggle that are consistent with the interests of the working class and its ability to organize and resist capitalist exploitation and oppression. All our tactics and actions are dictated by and subordinated to our strategic goal of workers’ socialist revolution as the only means to bring an end to the barbarity of imperialist capitalism.
In the wake of the retreat of Islamist forces the MNLA has apparently taken over a number of northern towns, explaining its aims as being “to ensure the safety of property and people especially because of the serious dangers to their lives with the return to Azawad of the Malian army who walk in the footsteps of the French army ... [and] which has always distinguished itself by its massacres of the helpless populations of Azawad – as it has proved once again as a result of the operation ... conducted under the command of the French army.” But the MNLA has also reiterated “its willingness to participate fully with the French army and ECOWAS in the fight against terrorism.” Indeed it appears to have followed through on this pledge, reportedly capturing two Islamist leaders and preparing to hand them over to French forces.
Under circumstances in which the French imperialists have overwhelming military superiority, it would be understandable for forces which genuinely wish to defend their people against the Malian army’s offensive to try to avoid a direct and immediate confrontation with the imperialists. But to volunteer to join one of the world’s great imperialist oppressors in a war against armed Islamist groups is appalling and must be condemned. It effectively represents an attempt by the MNLA to petition to be accepted as partners in the neo-colonial enforcement of the imperialists’ interests, which is the very source of the Malian masses’ suffering.
Time will tell, however, as to whether the imperialists will accept the MNLA’s entreaties and broker a deal between them and the Bamoko regime. Just as the MNLA agreed to share power with the Islamists in ruling over the masses in the North before being overpowered by them, the MNLA attempted to negotiate with the imperialists for acceptance of their northern state before the French invasion and was rebuffed. If the French invasion leads to the Malian army continuing to spread its reprisals to towns and villages which the MNLA promises to defend, the latter could be forced into a confrontation against the imperialist-backed army, and in such circumstances revolutionaries would favor the defense of the MNLA and the endangered masses.
Sixty years ago, there were almost no independent African countries. Now there are almost no colonies. But all African countries are in thrall to one or more imperialist powers – some even more so than at the moment of independence. The mass of African workers, peasants, artisans and peddlers are among the poorest in the world, while their countries contain resources of immense value. Given the continuing international economic crisis, the imperialists and the neo-colonial rulers who front for them are guaranteed to fight harder than ever for control over African resources, bringing even greater misery to the peoples of Africa.
The imperialists never left Africa and in recent years have greatly increased their presence. As the world economic crisis deepens, competition between the great powers over access to natural resources and strategic territory intensifies. The United States, for example, until recently a fairly minor player in Africa, has established a military command for the continent called “Africom” and has been deepening its links with the military regimes of the region under cover of cooperative agreements to fight terrorism. Indeed the U.S. just announced the creation of a new drone base in neighboring Niger.
In past centuries, the imperialist competition to divide the continent – the “Scramble for Africa” – took the form of wars of occupation and direct colonial rule. Today the imperialists prefer to avoid the cost of colonial occupations and would rather rely on formally independent regimes to protect their interests in the region. But decades of imperialist exploitation have left many of these “post-colonial” states weak, vulnerable to upsurges of struggle from the masses, as well as to opportunistic putsches by bourgeois oppositional forces. Such instability will continue to draw imperialist forces into the region, in conflict with both the masses, local states, and inevitably one another as their spheres of influence clash. That’s why it is so important for Marxists to be as clear as possible as to how they propose to lead the struggle against imperialism, with a strategy framed by unswerving anti-imperialist principles, and with tactics that build upon the independent interests and organization of the workers and oppressed people.
Mass struggle to defeat imperialist interventions is desperately needed. But if the African independence struggle teaches us anything, it is that political independence under capitalism isn’t enough. Indeed, it can simply turn into neo-colonial exploitation. That is why revolutionaries must work within anti-imperialist struggles to show the need for the working class to make the socialist revolution, leading the peasants, artisans, street traders, unemployed and oppressed peoples in a struggle for the liberation of all. The imperialists’ tactic of dividing-and-conquering the nationalities was nowhere more successful than in Africa. To overcome this division of the workers and peoples requires continental, in fact international revolution, though it will start in only one or a few countries.
Imperialist domination of the oppressed countries intensifies their class contradictions, weakening the position of their ruling classes while driving the masses toward rebellion. As a result, the socialist revolution will almost certainly start in countries which have strong working classes and are also victimized by imperialism. But the workers and oppressed peoples of the imperialist countries will have to succeed in rising up and seizing their rulers’ great wealth and military power in order to ultimately guarantee the world-wide victory of socialism.
This is the strategy of permanent revolution. Recognizing that decadent imperialist capitalism is a mortal threat to the democratic freedom and economic survival of the masses of workers and poor people everywhere, revolutionaries fight for every basic reform in the masses’ interests while explaining that international workers’ socialist revolution is the only solution.
For this struggle to succeed, the rebellions of the workers and oppressed people must find a vanguard party leadership that is prepared to lead the way forward to the overthrow of capitalism. That means disciplined organizations of the most class-conscious and militant workers and young people, armed with the Leninist and Trotskyist theory and program that represents the Marxism of our times, the program of a re-created Fourth International.
2. www.dailymotion.com/video/xs0ogj_islamists-destroy-sufi-shrines-in-timbuktu-mali_news#.URGVkaV9Kh0; www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/07/20127119538255768.html; and http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/10/2012101913622429221.html.
3. For background information on the persistence of slavery in Mali’s north, see Anti-Slavery International, “Descent Based Slavery in Mali,” and Celeste Hicks, “Uncovering Mali’s hidden slavery,” BBC News, August 22, 2010.
5. Mark Tran, “Mali conflict puts freedom of ‘slave descendants’ in peril,” The Guardian, October 23, 2012
6. Adam Nossiter, “Wave of Violent Repression Plagues Capital of Mali,” New York Times, July 25, 2012.
7. Stephen Zunes, “Mali’s struggle not simply of their own making.”
10. Lydia Polgreen, “Timbuktu Endured Terror Under Harsh Shariah Law,” New York Times, January 31, 2013.
13. Associated Press, “Mali residents detail civilian casualties in Konna,” January 26, 2013; and Kim Sengupta, Daniel Howden and John Lichfield, “Revealed: how French raid killed 12 Malian villagers,” The Independent, January 28, 2013.
14. Luke Harding, “Mali’s ethnic tensions erupt as troops hunt down suspected Islamists,” The Guardian, January 30, 2013; and “As Mali’s Islamists retreat, Tuareg civilians fear vengeful army’s reprisals,” The Guardian, January 31, 2013.
15. Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (C.T.E.A), Press Release, January 28, 2013.
16. Cheikh Diouara, “Mali Tuaregs seize two Islamist leaders fleeing French strikes,” February 4, 2013.
17. Roger Annis, "Mali: War threatened as Touareg leaders declare independence,” April 16, 2012.
18. Jim Lobe, “Africa Gets Its Own US Military Command,” Inter Press Service, February 1, 2007.
19. “Mali Falls Apart,” January 22, 2013.