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The test of Libya
3 April 2011
The revolutionary upsurges in North Africa and the Middle East should be serving as a revitalising jolt for revolutionary socialists elsewhere. After decades of isolation, finally they are able to contribute fully: to offer the tools of Marxist analysis, to offer the examples and lessons from earlier historical upsurges, to build solidarity from a working class perspective.
In many cases this is what has happened. However, as in the case of circulatory diseases, the return of blood flow may simply confirm that the affected area is dead and allow the processes of gangrene and decay to set in.
Such has been the case with Gilbert Achcar, a well-known academic with a long history of involvement with the Fourth International. Achcar, under the pressure of revolutionary upsurge, has completed a journey from revolutionary socialism to liberal commentator with a declaration of support for imperialist war in Lybia.
Achcar says:” The resolution is amazingly confused. But given the urgency of preventing the massacre that would have inevitably resulted from an assault on Benghazi by Gaddafi's forces, and the absence of any alternative means of achieving the protection goal, no one can reasonably oppose it..... You can't in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can't in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists”.
Achcar denounces dogmatism, a growing habit in the socialist movement by those who, after years of endorsing an amorphous anti-capitalism, find themselves uncomfortable when Marxist theory is applied to real events.
Yet his whole position is one of bombastic and pompous dogmatism. He asserts a scenario about Libya that, unless we bow down to his supreme authority as academic commentator, he cannot possibly know. Not only that, he asserts as gospel that future developments can only take one path without imperialist intervention and that there is no alternative to supporting this intervention.
However it would be a mistake to debate Achcar on these grounds. He does not know fully what is happening in Libya and neither do I.
What we have to stamp upon is a deeper arrogance - an arrogance that sees the language of Marxism as something posed within exaggerated quotation marks - proof of the writer’s erudition and knowledge of the mystic texts, to be discarded immediately once we encounter the real world. When we examine Achcar's text we find that Marxism is absent. What we are dealing with is a humanitarian argument, full of all the illusions of the bog-standard liberal shaking their head over the Sunday newspapers.
What is the alternative to humanitarian concern? For Marxists all struggles are the struggles of contesting classes. The imperialist powers, representing the highest stage of capitalism, have interests that are antithetical to those of the working class. The working class may not appear as an organized force, but that does not mean that it has no interests that will not be advanced or suppressed by the outcome of specific struggles. Finally Marxism tells us that struggles have a broader context. The interests of the workers are not restricted to a national stage, but have a regional and global dimension. So solidarity is not a way of applauding each other’s struggle at a distance, but a way of recognising that the workers in Europe, the US and around the world are involved in a common struggle against capitalism and imperialism and the task of solidarity is to bring our common interests to the fore. The significance of the cruise missile socialists is not that they are standing back from the struggle in Libya, but in rejecting the common struggle, they are standing back from struggle full stop. They then become subject to moralism produced by the whims and pressures of bourgeois public opinion which is often formed by the imperialists themselves. This is the significance of Achcar's failure. We are involved in a common struggle and he has moved to the other side, not in some far away country but in fighting the capitalist state in which he lives.
So what is the context of the struggle in Libya?
The context is the wave of revolution sweeping across the region. This revolution is the spontaneous uprising of young people demanding democracy and also seeking social change that will deliver jobs and a decent life.
Immediately these revolts are objectively anti-imperialist. The structures they are struggling against: The monarchies, the dictatorships, the Israeli state, the countries directly occupied - all these are sponsored by Imperialism and together constitute a mechanism of imperialist rule.
What is the response of the various regimes? They seek to directly suppress the revolts. Where necessary they offer minimal concessions also with the aim of demobilising the resistance.
This strategy is also the strategy of imperialism. Where possible, force is used to crush the resistance, as it was in Bahrain with the direct involvement of the US in planning the counteroffensive and in Iraq where US occupation troops are still present. Where concessions have to be made elements of the regime are sacrificed rather than the regime itself. Attempts are made to shape the emerging opposition so that minimal changes are required.
The imperialists are struggling because for years they have argued that the only alternative to their client regimes is Islamic fundamentalism, yet the opposition that emerges is secular and democratic. The regimes have one overarching advantage. After decades of repression there are few democratic and working class movements in existence. The revolutionary forces urgently need time to develop programme and organization. That is the starting point for solidarity. Not to weep salt tears or to shout encouragement, but to pass on what we have learnt – that the class interests of capitalism within their movements will lead to their betrayal and defeat, that objective anti-imperialism must move on to become a conscious struggle, that that conscious struggle can only be based on the working class and that the only political basis for such a movement is socialism.
So, starting from the standpoint of class struggle we are able to take a general perspective on imperialist strategy in relation to the revolutionary upsurges. It is general, it lacks detail but it does give a framework for analysis and action.
So why the military intervention in Libya? Well there are a number of factors we can be sure of. One is that Libya produces oil and that the battles have ebbed and flowed around a massive oil production centre. Secondly the calls to arms have been led by France and the British, the countries who have in the recent past had the strongest ties with the Libyan regime. One analysis that has been offered was that these powers doubted Gaddafi's ability to restore order and believed that either the overthrow of Gaddafi or partition was the best way to protect their investment.
It has been argued that the US is a reluctant participant in the Libyan adventure. The evidence does not support this. Obama deliberated, but he authorized covert operations in Libya at an early stage and when he did act, used overwhelming force and constructed a UN resolution that offered carte blanche to the imperialist powers.
The reason given for intervention by US defence chief Robert Gates was that continued unrest would destabilise Morocco and Tunisia. Having been caught on the back foot by the upsurge, the US was constructing a regional strategy. Being able to add military intervention to the mix greatly strengthens their hand.
There is one other element of importance. That is that French agents, alongside British and US covert forces, were in Benghazi from an early stage, that they were in contact with members of the Transitional Interim National Council, including people who had recently been members of the Gaddafi regime and that they very quickly recognized that elements of the council would be willing collaborators with imperialism. The military intervention against Gaddafi followed on the heels of this. It does suggest very strongly that imperialist powers received an offer they couldn't refuse in terms of guarantees of imperialist interests in Libya.
When you put this alongside a constant drive to pull defectors from the regime, imperialist strategy in Libya looks remarkably like everywhere else in the region. Where you have to, sacrifice the dictator, then fight like hell to preserve the regime or install a close copy.
What are the effects of imperialist intervention? Right away a mass uprising becomes a civil war. Gaddafi gains renewed legitimacy as the defender of the nation against imperialist invasion. Doubters in his own ranks are now traitors. Those in the uprising correspondingly loose political authority and the pace of events moves away from politics and mass action to the military decisions of the imperialist powers.
Within the opposition camp power moves away from the masses and becomes concentrated with those who hold the ear of the imperialists. The European powers meet in London to decide the future of Libya, for all the world like a colonial conference from past times lording it over Africa.
Marxists have a special role to play within the revolutions and in solidarity with them. We stand unconditionally for the democratic rights of the Arab and North African masses. We stand firmly against imperialist intervention, without making the mistake of endorsing Gaddafi or states such as Syria as in some way anti-imperialist. We argue specifically for the self-organization of the working class and for a socialist solution in the understanding that a democratic capitalist society is not a possible outcome to the present struggles in a period when capitalism no longer supports even the limited democratic structures and freedoms of the past.
The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa will constitute a defining moment in the revolutionary history of this century. The struggles they have initiated will continue for many years and will help define the politics and organization of the working class movement across the world.
For all these reasons it is essential that revolutionaries repudiate Achcar, the cruise missile socialists who stand with him, and organizations such as those in Denmark, Germany and Portugal who have voted to support imperialist intervention.
We must unite, both politically and organizationally, in defence of revolution, in opposition to imperialist intervention and in solidarity with the workers. A valuable start has been made by commentators such as Alex Callinicos and Pham Binh.
In his defence Achcar argues that he would be the first to demonstrate for UN intervention and a no-fly zone if there was a further attack on Gaza. He will stand alone. Our task as Marxists is to explain that UN intervention is imperialist military adventure and that no-fly zones are simply a passport to war without boundaries or restraint. Our task is to overthrow imperialism, to defend the Arab workers by attacking it in its heartland, not to weave stupefying fairy tales about its ability to civilize or pacify.
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