Libya: The ‘no-fly zone’ and the Left

  By Peter Taaffe, from Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales) Imperialist powers have implemented a no-fly zone over Libya to protect their own strategic and economic interests and to restore their damaged prestige. Incredibly, some on the Marxist left support this military intervention. War is the most barbaric of all human activity, invested as it is in the modern era with fiendish weapons of mass destruction. It also lays bare the reality of class relations, nationally and internationally, which are normally obfuscated, hidden by layers of hypocrisy and the moral turpitude of the ruling classes. It is the ultimate test, alongside revolution, of ideas and programme, not only for the bourgeois but also for the labour movement and the different political trends within it.

The current Libyan war – for that is what it is – illustrates this clearly. Capitalism and imperialism, masquerading under the moth-eaten label of ‘humanitarian military intervention’ – utterly discredited by the slaughter of Iraq – are using the conflict in an attempt to regain the initiative. Taken aback by the sweep of the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt – with loyal props such as Mubarak and Ben Ali toppled – they desperately sought a lever to halt the process and hopefully reverse it.

This is what lies behind the bloody massacre in Bahrain, carried out by Saudi Arabian troops, with a large component of mercenaries from Pakistan and elsewhere. Not a peep has issued from the British government on the revelations in The Observer of widespread murder gangs – led by Sunni Muslims linked to the monarchy – and the deliberate attempt to foster sectarianism in what had been previously a largely unified non-ethnic movement. The slogans of the original Bahraini demonstrations were: ‘We are not Shia, we are not Sunni, we are Bahraini’.

Equally, the ‘Labour leaders’ – led by New Labour chief, Ed Miliband, who promised something ‘different’ to the previous regime of Tony Blair – have now shuffled into line to back David Cameron’s Libyan policies and the imposition of the no-fly zone.

Incredibly, this policy has been supported by some on the left, including a few who adhere to Marxism and Trotskyism. Amongst these must be included Gilbert Achar, who has written books on the Middle East, and whose support for the no-fly zone was originally carried uncritically on the website journal of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), International Viewpoint. His views were subsequently repudiated by the USFI.

No such uncertainty, however, exists for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). This organisation’s shrill tone, particularly in criticising others on the left, rises in inverse proportion to its small forces and its even more limited influence within the labour movement. The AWL has even dragged in Leon Trotsky to justify imperialist intervention through the no-fly zone. One headline read: “Libya: no illusions in west but ‘anti-intervention’ opposition is abandoning the rebels”. Another priceless headline was: ‘Why we should not denounce intervention in Libya’. (Workers Liberty website, 23 March)

These latter examples fly in the face of a cardinal principle of Marxism and Trotskyism. That is to strive to instil into the working class and its organisations complete class independence from all shades of bourgeois opinion and the actions that flow from this. This applies on all questions, particularly during a war, even a civil war, which the Libyan conflict clearly has elements of.

There is nothing remotely progressive in the attempt of the imperialist powers of Britain, France or the US to implement the no-fly zone. The Benghazi rebels are so much small change in their calculations. Only yesterday, these ‘powers’ embraced Muammar Gaddafi, supplied him with weapons, bought his oil and, through Blair, visited his ‘big tent’ in the desert and welcomed him into the ‘international community’. This term is a complete misnomer, as is the idea of the United Nations, used on this occasion as the screen behind which the intervention in Libya was prepared, for naked capitalist and imperialist class interests.

Undoubtedly, there are illusions amongst many idealistic young people and workers who look towards such bodies to resolve the problems of war, conflict, poverty, etc. Some were also motivated to support the no-fly zone because of the fear that the population in Benghazi would be massacred by Gaddafi’s forces. But the UN merely brings the capitalist nations together, dominated overwhelmingly by the US, to collaborate when their interests coincide, but which, equally, are very ‘disunited’ when the opposite is the case. The jockeying for position and the squabbles between the different imperialist powers over the Libyan intervention illustrate this.

US overstretch and uncertainty

The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa initially revealed the uncertainty – almost the paralysis – of the major imperialist power, the US, to intervene. The administration of Barack Obama has been forced to attempt to separate itself from George Bush’s doctrine of a unipolar world dominated by US imperialism, with its overwhelming economic and military power. It still retains this military advantage compared to its rivals but this is now undermined by the economic weakening of the US.

There is also the problem of Afghanistan and the fear that this is leading to military overstretch. This forced Robert Gates, US defence secretary, to declare early on his opposition – and, it must be assumed, of the US general staff – to the use of US land troops anywhere else in the world. He also said that it was a ‘certainty’ that no US ground troops would be authorised by Obama in Libya. He underlined this when he “laid into the rebels’ capabilities, describing the opposition as a faction-ridden and disparate ‘misnomer’ whose forces lacked ‘command and control and organisation’.” (Observer, 3 April)

Obama, on the hoof, has sought to formulate a new military diplomatic doctrine in line with the changed position of the US. He has tried to draw a distinction between the ‘vital’ and ‘non-vital’ interests of US imperialism. In ‘vital’ cases, the US will act unilaterally if the situation requires it but the US, he arrogantly proclaimed, is no longer ‘the world’s policeman’ but, in future, would act as the world’s ‘police chief’. This means, it seems, that the US would lend its support, be formally at the head of, a ‘multilateral core coalition’, so long as this did not mean the automatic actual deployment of troops.

Despite this, the pressure allegedly to prevent a ‘bloodbath’ has now compelled Obama to sign a public letter with Nicolas Sarkozy and Cameron declaring that it would be ‘an unconscionable betrayal’ if Gaddafi remains in place and the rebels are left to his mercy. Libya, they declare, threatens to become ‘a failed state’. This appears to set the scene for another somersault, particularly by Obama, to prepare the use of some ground forces if necessary. When it has been unable to intervene directly, because of domestic opposition for instance, imperialism has not hesitated to use mercenaries to overthrow a regime it did not favour or to stymie a revolution. Such was the policy of Ronald Reagan’s administration in using hired thugs, the Contras, against the Nicaraguan revolution.

Imperialism has been forced into the latest stand by the fact that Gaddafi appears to be winning or, at least, has sufficient military strength and a residue of support to avoid outright military defeat, short of a land invasion. The rebels hold only the east, and not even all of this. The west, in which two thirds of the population live, is still largely controlled by Gaddafi and his forces. This is not entirely due to popular compliance with the Gaddafi regime. His forces have most of the guns, particularly heavy weapons, tanks, etc. He has always kept the regular army in check for fear that a coup could emanate from this quarter. Patrick Cockburn wrote in the Independent on Sunday: “Absence of a professional army in Libya means that the rebels have to rely on long-retired soldiers to train new recruits”. (17 April) Gaddafi is also able to draw on tribal support, as well as the political capital accumulated for his regime from the higher living standards in Libya, before the conflict, than in most countries in the region.

The Spanish revolution

Many supporters of the no-fly zone took this position in the expectation that imperialism would be unable to proceed beyond this. What will they do if, as cannot be excluded, land forces in one form or another are deployed with the open or concealed compliance of the imperialist powers of the US, France and Britain?

In the House of Commons debate on 21 March, Miliband was unrestrained in his support for Cameron’s military action. This is further confirmation of the political degeneration of the Labour Party, from a workers’ party at bottom into a bourgeois formation. Writers from the capitalist class now almost casually recognise this reality: “The Labour Party was once the political arm of the organised working class. All three main parties are now the political arm of the organised corporate class. This is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. Almost every advanced democracy, and particularly the US, struggles to control the corporate sector”. (Peter Wilby, The Guardian, 12 April)

Just compare the stance of the current ‘Labour’ leader to that of Harold Wilson at the time of the Vietnam war. Much to the chagrin of then US president, Lyndon Johnson, Wilson – although he was not averse to supporting military action abroad if he thought he could get away with it – refused to involve British troops. For him to have done otherwise would have split the Labour Party from top to bottom, probably leading to his removal as leader. In other words, he was compelled by the pressure of the ranks of the Labour Party and the trade unions to desist from supporting military action by US imperialism.

Now Miliband backs Cameron, with hardly a squeak from New Labour MPs or the ‘rank and file’. He has invoked Spain during the civil war, in justifying support for the government. He declared: “In 1936, a Spanish politician came to Britain to plead for support in the face of General Franco’s violent fascism. He said: ‘We are fighting with sticks and knives against tanks and aircraft and guns, and it revolts the conscience of the world that that should be true’.” (Hansard, 21 March)

The parallel with Spain is entirely false. Then, a genuine revolution of the working class and poor peasants unfolded, with the creation, at least in the initial period after July 1936, of genuine workers’ power, mass committees, and the occupation of land and factories. Spain was experiencing a social revolution. In the main, this revolution was defeated not by Franco’s fascist forces but by the false policies of the republican bourgeoisie which derailed the revolution, aided and abetted by the Communist Party, under orders from Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy. They correctly feared that the triumph of the Spanish revolution would be the signal for their own overthrow.

In this situation, the world working class rallied in support of the demand for arms to Spain. Then imperialism, particularly the Anglo-French powers, did everything to prevent the Spanish workers from being armed. Yet the right-wing Tory MP, Bill Cash, agreed with Miliband that there was indeed “a parallel with what happened in 1936”, and therefore supported the “arming of those who are resisting Gaddafi” in Benghazi. Does this not indicate the political character of the present leadership in Benghazi and the east, which includes former Gaddafi loyalists like the former head of the special forces, Abdul Fattah Younis? If the original tendency shown in Benghazi of mass committees, involving the participation of the working class, had been maintained there would be no question of support emanating from right-wing Tories! Miliband gave further justification for his support of the no-fly zone: “There is international consent, a just cause and a feasible mission… are we really saying that we should be a country that stands by and does nothing?”

No serious left force can advocate a policy of abstention where working people are subjected to murderous attack by a ruthless dictator like Gaddafi. Clearly, we had to give political support –the position of the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) from the outset – to the people of Benghazi when they drove Gaddafi’s forces from the city in a revolutionary uprising. This is a sufficient answer to those who seek to justify support for military intervention from the outside on the basis that Benghazi’s people are defenceless. They used the same arguments about the impotence of the Iraqi people in the grip of a ruthless dictator to justify the bombardment and invasion of Iraq, with all the murderous results that we see now. But this argument was shattered by the uprising of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples who, through their own multi-millioned power, smashed dictatorships.

The people of Benghazi have already defeated Gaddafi’s forces once. This was when revolutionary or semi-revolutionary methods were deployed. These now seem to have taken a backseat as petty-bourgeois and bourgeois forces have elbowed aside the genuine revolutionary forces. On the basis of mass workers’ committees, a revolutionary army – unlike the ragtag force supporting the so-called ‘transitional government’ – could have been mobilised to seize all the towns in the east and make a revolutionary appeal to the people of the west, particularly in the capital, Tripoli.

There are many successful examples of this in history, not least in the Spanish revolution, which Miliband invokes but does not understand. For instance, after the workers in Barcelona smashed Franco’s fascist uprising in July 1936, José Buenaventura Durruti formed a revolutionary army which marched through Catalonia and Aragon to the gates of Madrid. This placed four fifths of Spain in the hands of the working class and poor peasantry. This was indeed a ‘just’ war on the part of the masses who were defending democracy while striving for a new, humane, socialist society. Moreover, it was one with real international support from the European and world working class. Miliband’s criteria for what is ‘just’ and what is not is situated within capitalism and what is best for that system, not the interests of working-class people who are in an oppositional and antagonistic relationship to that system, increasingly so today.

Western powers’ double standards

Our criteria of what is just and progressive, including wars, is that which enhances and strengthens the working masses, increases their power, their consciousness, etc. What hinders this is retrogressive. Capitalist, imperialist intervention, including the no-fly zone, even if successful, will not strengthen the working class, increase the sense of its own power, to see itself and its organisations as the real and only lever for achieving its ends. Instead, it directs the gaze of the workers in the east towards an outside ‘liberating’ force, thereby lowering the consciousness of working people in their own potential power.

As even Tory MPs commented in the Commons debate, Miliband seemed to identify himself completely with the ‘Blair doctrine’ – so-called humanitarian military intervention from the outside – from which he had appeared to distance himself when first elected leader. This meant justifying both Blair and Cameron’s arguments when confronted with the choice of where and when to intervene in the world. Miliband fell back on the specious statement: “The argument that because we cannot do everything we cannot do anything is a bad argument”. ‘We’, that is, capitalism and imperialism, cannot intervene against dictatorship in Burma, cannot even raise ‘our’ voices against the murderous assaults of the Israeli ruling class on the Palestinians in Gaza. ‘We’ are mute against the vicious regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Nevertheless, it is ‘just’ to oppose Gaddafi – while only yesterday ‘we’ embraced him – and to use force from the sky, at least, against him and his regime.

The ‘liberal’ Observer newspaper takes the prize for summing up this arbitrary hypocritical approach of capitalism: “Why does this Gulf regime [Bahrain] get the benefit of the doubt when other authoritarian Arab rulers do not? Clearly, there is no question of intervention in Bahrain or in any other state where protest is being crushed. The entanglement in Libya leaves no appetite for giving active support, whether diplomatic or military, to other rebellions. If only one villain in the region had to be singled out for attack, Colonel Gaddafi was surely the most deserving candidate”. (17 April)

Entirely missing from this argumentation is the real reason for intervention in Libya, and that is the material interests of capitalism and imperialism, above all of oil, with some of the biggest reserves in Africa. Some have even denied that this is a factor – they argued the same before Iraq. “The oil conspiracy theory… is one of the most absurd”, said Blair (6 February 2003). Now The Independent (19 April) has published a hitherto hidden Foreign Office memorandum, sent on 13 November 2002, following a meeting with the oil giant BP: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there”.

Shameful support for military intervention

While the position of the likes of Miliband is not unexpected, given the rightward evolution of the ex-workers’ parties and their leaders, the same cannot be said of those claiming to stand in a Marxist-Trotskyist tradition. Sean Matgamna of the AWL even drags in Leon Trotsky to justify support for military intervention in Libya: “An individual, a group, a party, or a class that ‘objectively’ picks its nose while it watches men drunk with blood massacring defenceless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive”. In this passage, from his writings on the Balkan wars prior to the first world war, Trotsky denounces the spokesmen of Russian liberal capitalism for remaining silent while Serbian and Bulgarian atrocities were committed against other nationalities.

He was not in anyway justifying support for the leaders of one nation against another. This is clear from the rest of the quote, which Matgamna does not cite: “On the other hand, a party or the class that rises up against every abominable action wherever it has occurred, as vigorously and unhesitatingly as a living organism reacts to protect its eyes when they are threatened with external injury – such a party or class is sound of heart. Protest against the outrages in the Balkans cleanses the social atmosphere in our own country, heightens the level of moral awareness among our own people… Therefore an uncompromising protest against atrocities serves not only the purpose of moral self-defence on the personal and party level but also the purpose of politically safeguarding the people against adventurism concealed under the flag of ‘liberation’.”

If anything, the last point from this quote finds conclusively against the AWL. It is supporting imperialist intervention under the false flag of ‘liberation’. Yet we find the astounding allegation: “The would-be left is yet again tying itself in knots over a false political dilemma: the belief that in order not to give general support to the British-France ‘liberal intervention’ in Libya, they must stridently oppose them on this and on every specific thing they do. Or at least on every military action. In fact it is a dilemma of their own making”. Trying to square the circle, Matgamna then adds: “Of course, socialists should not give positive political support to the governments and the ruling capitalists of Britain, France, the USA, or the UN, in Libya or anywhere else”.

A child of ten can recognise that support for military action of whatever kind is ‘positive political support’. The AWL claims that it can neatly separate support for action of this character from the wider perspectives of the powers that take such action. It is, in effect, the political attorney and apologist for France and Britain: “The UN, with Britain and France as its instruments, has set very limited objectives in Libya. There is no reason at all to think that the ‘Great Powers’ want to occupy Libya or are doing other than a limited international police operation on what they see as Europe’s ‘southern border’.” Gratuitously the AWL says: “The bitter lessons of their bungling in Iraq are still very fresh to them”. It goes on: “In the name of what alternative should we have told them to stop using air power to prevent Gaddafi massacring an incalculable number of his own people? That is the decisive question in all such situations”. If you do not go along with this nonsense you are incorrigible pacifists, according to the AWL.

To show how far these latter-day ‘Trotskyists’ are removed from Trotsky’s real views on war, look at his position during the Spanish civil war on the issue of the military budget of the Republican government. Max Shachtman, at that time one of his followers, opposed Trotsky who had argued in 1937: “If we would have a member in the Cortes [Spanish parliament] he would vote against the military budget of Negrin”. Trotsky wrote that Shachtman’s opposition to this position “astounded me. Shachtman was willing to express confidence in the perfidious Negrin government”.

He later explained: “To vote for the military budget of the Negrin government signifies to vote him political confidence… To do it would be a crime. How do we explain our vote to the anarchist workers? Very simply: We have not the slightest confidence in the capacity of this government to conduct the war and assure victory. We accuse this government of protecting the rich and starving the poor. This government must be smashed. So long as we are not strong enough to replace it, we are fighting under its command. But on every occasion we express openly our non-confidence in it: it is the only one possibility to mobilise the masses politically against this government and to prepare its overthrow. Any other politics would be a betrayal of the revolution”. (Trotsky, From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene, 24 January 1940). How much more scathingly would Trotsky assail the AWL’s shameful support for imperialist intervention in Libya today.

An independent class position

Incredibly, the AWL’s apology for imperialist intervention allegedly defends ‘independent working-class politics’. But there is not an atom of an independent class position in its approach. We opposed military intervention, but so did the masses in Benghazi in the first period. The slogans on the walls read, in English: ‘No to foreign intervention, the Libyans can do it themselves’. In other words, the masses had a much sounder class instinct, a suspicion of any military intervention from the outside, particularly by the powers that formerly dominated the region: Britain and France. They correctly feared that a no-fly zone, despite protestations to the contrary, would lead to an invasion, as it did in Iraq.

Does this mean that we remain on the level of general slogans, that we are impassive in the face of a possible attack by Gaddafi on Benghazi? No. But in such a situation we emphasise the need for independent class politics, for the masses to rely on their own strength and to give not a scintilla of support for the idea that imperialism has the best interests of the masses at heart. True, we cannot react – as did Alex Callinicos, a leader of the British SWP – to the arguments of the possible massacre in Benghazi with the statement: “The sad fact is that massacres are a chronic feature of capitalism. The revolutionary left is, alas, too weak to stop them”.

Physically, the forces of Marxism may be too weak to prevent massacres – in Rwanda, for instance. Nonetheless, we are obligated to advocate that the broad labour movement should adopt the most effective position politically to defend and enhance the power and influence of the working class in a given situation. In Northern Ireland, in 1969, for instance, Militant supporters (predecessors of the Socialist Party), opposed sending in British troops to ‘defend’ the Catholic nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry from a murderous assault by the predominantly loyalist B-Specials. The SWP, despite later denials, supported sending in the British troops. When the troop did go in, they defended these areas from loyalist attacks and were welcomed as ‘defenders’. But, as we predicted, at a certain stage this would turn into its opposite and the troops would come to be seen as a repressive force against the Catholic nationalist minority. This is how events actually worked out.

However, faced with a possible massacre of the Catholic population we did not adopt a ‘neutral’ or passive position. In Militant (now The Socialist), in September 1969, we argued “for a united workers’ defence force, the withdrawal of British troops, disband the B-Specials, end of all discrimination, jobs, homes, schools, etc, for all workers”. We stood, in other words, for class unity and for working people to rely on their own forces and not on the capitalist state forces. Only a similar approach based on the foundation of complete class independence, adapted to the concrete conditions in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, can lead to success for the workers’ struggle in a very complicated situation.

We cannot follow Achar either when he declares: “Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore a popular movement’s plea for protection, even by means of imperialist bandit-cops, when the type of protection requested is not one through which control over their country could be exerted? Certainly not, by my understanding of the left. No real progressive could just ignore the uprising’s request for protection”.

It is wrong to identify the ‘uprising’, which was originally a genuine mass movement – as we pointed out – with its present leadership, stuffed with bourgeois and pro-bourgeois elements, including remnants from the Gaddafi regime. Moreover, it is entirely wrong to equate Lenin’s acceptance of food and even arms from one imperialist power to be used to repulse another, without any military or political strings attached, to support for imperialism’s no-fly zone – as some have done. It is not a question for Marxism only of what is done, but who does it, why and how.

Defending revolution

Ultimately, imperialism’s intervention is to safeguard its power, prestige and income from the threat of the unfolding revolution in the region. A spokesman for the Obama administration made it clear that it is not Libya that is the main concern but what happens in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where most of the oil reserves upon which world capitalism depends are concentrated. But they see a successful intervention in Libya as a firewall against the threat of revolution in these states and the whole region. They are also concerned about the regional influence of Iran, which grew enormously as a result of the Iraq war.

The situation in Libya is extremely fluid. The outcome of the present conflict is uncertain. At the moment, it looks like deadlock with neither Gaddafi nor the rebels able to strike a decisive blow for victory in what is now a drawn-out civil war. This could lead to the effective partitioning of the country, already the de facto case. In this situation, all the latent tribal divisions – held in check partly by the terror of the Gaddafi regime – could come flooding to the surface, creating a new Somalia in the centre of the Middle East, with all its instability, not least in the struggle over Libya’s oil reserves. On the other hand, imperialism is desperate to avoid the impression that Gaddafi could come out as a partial victor in this struggle, enhancing the perceived impotence of the imperialist powers to decide the outcome of events.

But the responsibility of the labour movements in Britain and worldwide is clear. Absolute opposition to all outside imperialist intervention! Let the Libyan people decide their own fate! Maximum support, from the world working class and labour movement, including the supply of food and weapons, to the genuine forces of national and social liberation in Libya and the Middle East!

Imperialism will not be able to stop the forward march of revolution in North Africa and the Middle East. Yes, there is disappointment, as the CWI predicted, amongst the masses that the fruits of their victories against Mubarak and Ben Ali appear to have been stolen for the moment by the regimes that replaced them. The hated security apparatus and state machine which existed before, despite the mighty labours of the revolution, remain largely intact. But they are being opposed by the mass movements.

The revolutions endure and millions have learnt enormously in the course of this movement. Hopefully, their conclusions will lead to a strengthening of the working class and the development of independent class politics. This would be symbolised by the development of the workers’ own organisations, new powerful trade unions and workers’ parties with the goal of socialist transformation, accompanied by democracy in Libya and the region as a whole.


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