Does the refusal to endorse a call for an immediate end to the Western imposed no fly zone over Libya constitute a critical endorsement of imperialism? This is a charge that has been hurled with great solemnity at those of us who refuse lend our voices to the chorus demanding a halt to the aerial assault, while also claiming to champion Libyan democracy.
This question appears to the many opponents of Western intervention to simply and smugly answer itself. The accusation itself is a veiled form of political damnation wrapped in a heavy dose of tongue clicking condescension.
It is usually triumphantly twinned with the proud discovery that “humanitarian” intervention is belied by the refusal of the West to intervene in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen against Arab absolutism. This would, indeed, be a biting critique if any socialist who failed to join the choir actually alibied for imperialism by retailing this load of nonsense. The problem is that this specimen is difficult to locate.
On the other hand, the dual track of Western imperialism does open our critics to a charge they must be equally willing to face. Since the policy of withholding active military support to the rebels in these counties is also the policy that our socialist critics would have imperialism extend to Libya, does that not, by the same line of reasoning, make our detractors “critical supporters” of imperialism in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen? Are they not simply counter posing an imperialist approach that they “critically” endorse with respect to one region of the Arab world and demanding that it be also implemented in Libya?
Of course, I intend these questions to be demagogic and that’s precisely my point. It is simply the argument of our critics turned inside out and applied uniformly across the board.
This is a line of reasoning that, argued from either direction, illuminates exactly nothing.
Let us examine this with a bit more seriousness. Socialists, in whose camp I count myself, did not call for a no fly zone. We simply recognized an indisputable fact. Without the NFZ the Libyan rebels would have been annihilated. And if the NFZ is withdrawn prematurely, they will be annihilated. The refusal of imperialism to intervene in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen is raised with great fanfare by our critics as revealing the true face of imperialism, one that smiles contentedly at the destruction of a democratic opposition. This, of course, our comrade critics ardently oppose. The intervention in Libya is resisted with equal gusto as revealing the true face of imperialism, one that licks its lips at the prospects of hijacking a revolution that resists being quashed. This, of course, they no less vigorously oppose.
What then? Raise demands that favor the certain crushing of the Libyan revolution to the danger of its being hijacked and proclaim that approach the distilled essence of anti-imperialism. Then comb through quotes from Trotsky and Marx that miraculously reveal that they too — hold on to your seat — were no less hostile to imperialism than our critics. Since our critics highly endorse the works of Trotsky and Marx, it follows QED that Trotsky and Marx would have reciprocally obliged by endorsing the betrayal of the Libyan democracy done in their names.
Is there anything more to be said?
Let us turn to the American Revolution to provide some instructive historical perspective. This admittedly imperfect example gets us somewhat closer to the crux of the matter. The American Revolution mirrors the Libyan conflict insofar as it too combined aspects of a civil war with that of an imperial intervention.
It is generally agreed that without the assistance of France, Spain and later Holland the struggle for independence would have gone down to defeat. The revolutionists were disgusted with the thought of even having to ask France for aid. They had just yesterday fought the French in Canada and looked on French ambitions with justifiable suspicion. That France might possibly offer assistance for the purpose of weakening England, they could believe. But even if France was willing to take that gamble and enter in a conflict to drive Great Britain from the continent, would she then just sit idly by? Would France voluntarily permit the North American colonies to go free thereby courting the danger of stimulating similar appetites for liberation on the part of her West Indian colonies?
Certainly the American revolutionists ran the risk in courting aid from the Bourbons of exchanging one set of continental oppressors for another. But there were no other viable historical options given the near certainty of defeat in the absence of French intervention.
Were those (hypothetical) republican well wishers abroad who would have demanded an immediate halt to the French intervention any better friends to the American Revolution than those who would have advised the revolutionists to take advantage of any opportunity French reaction could provide, while cautioning them to be ever distrustful of French imperial motives and aspirations?
The Arab uprisings are bourgeois revolutions, an alliance of the middle and working classes against Absolutism. These revolutions are processes with an inner forward dynamic that will eventually open the field to class differentiation and to independent working class organisation and struggle. Among those struggles will be the assertion of popular and national interests against global imperial ones. These are the principle considerations that determine our general attitude towards the Libyan revolution as a key battlefront in the broader conflict.
In this struggle, a legitimate democratic leadership asked for a limited imperialist intervention against the forces of Absolutism. This is a request that socialists have always acknowledged embattled democrats to have every right to make. If socialist support for that demand is conditional on it not being affirmatively answered, it is no right at all.
But that does not excuse us from posing another question. Does a limited imperialist alliance predicated not simply on coincidence of interests, but on an imperialist calculus of power in maintaining hegemony, suffice to change our basic attitude towards this revolution?
Let us consider another historical example, that of the Spanish Civil War. For it too combined a civil war aspect with an imperial intervention.
The Western democracies, it is true, have often been indicted by revolutionaries, and rightfully so, for failing to lift the arms embargo against Spain. This “neutrality” had the effect of benefiting the fascists who were not equally encumbered, insofar as Germany and Italy were actively aiding their cause. The demand for an end to the arms embargo however is also used as an example today of the limit to what hard-pressed democrats can realistically demand while still enjoying the active confidence of socialists abroad.
What is often forgotten is that Stalinist Russia did in fact supply arms to the loyalists. They did so in for reactionary purposes. Their aim was to present Russia to the West as suitable a partner in a future war against fascism, to impress upon Germany the urgency of coming to terms with Russia before that partnership was cemented and to deprive Spain of a revolution whose emancipatory example would expose Stalin’s consolidation of bureaucratic power for the counter-revolution it was. Stalin was able to realize his political aims without “boots on the ground” simply by manipulating the terms under which arms were transferred.
The French and the Russian interventions highlight two meaningful insights. Active military intervention does not necessarily lead to the subversion of a revolution; and the circumvention of an arms embargo cannot itself safeguard a revolution from being overwhelmed by the imperial ambitions of the revolution’s weapons’ suppliers, even when no active intervention has transpired.
The socialist movement dishonors itself when it approaches revolutions and interventions, not as critical thinkers, but as a religious police force determined to impose taboos and cast imprecations on political analyses. The question is: how do socialists orient themselves to an imperial intervention which they did not call for, do not endorse — critically or otherwise — and which raises the real possibility of imperial powers gaining negotiating rights — that we reject as being totally illegitimate — over the future of a country at war?
When it is an issue of unilateral imperial intervention, socialists call in one form or another for a “troops out” orientation. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this is how imperialism has foisted its will on other nations. And the “troops out” approach serves as a ruggedly reliable baseline. It encompasses the necessary, though not always a sufficient obligation to mobilise popular sentiment against our own ruling class. It is an act of solidarity with the forces of democracy abroad, who have not asked for this intervention and who often believe that such an intervention was engineered or has the effect of both discrediting and outmaneuvering the revolutionary opposition. As the example of Cuba well demonstrates, such interventions often allow authoritarian regimes to fortify their rule by drawing on the legitimate fears of foreign domination.
But this approach to unilateralism is inadequate when applied to Libya, just as such an approach would have left the American revolution in the lurch. For now, at least, NATO has stopped the annihilation of the freedom fighters. And for this we should breathe a sigh of relief. But it has also undeniably introduced a new source of danger. The rebel’s military collaboration with imperialism could compel us to change our basic attitude towards the resistance if that collaboration also comes to have the actual effect of derailing the central political dynamic of that revolution. This requires us to continuously reassess the relative weight of the civil war aspect against the imperialist aspect of the combined situation.
It also means that evaluations of the legal or Constitutional frameworks of intervention, over which so many gallons of ink have been spilled — much of it quite learned and insightful — are nevertheless fundamentally irrelevant for socialists. What we must ask is whether the no fly zone, no matter how it violates its original “mandate”, is likely to have the same result as a large scale military invasion, namely to replace Qaddafy with an imposed client.
If the answer is no, then that danger is unlikely to introduce itself, short of an actual invasion, in direct form. The real vulnerability of the Libyan revolution, I would argue, resides not in military collaboration, but rather in a military stalemate. This would leave Qaddafy presiding over an isolated rump regime in the west ever threatening to overrun a TNC controlled semi-state in the east, flattened to near total reliance on Western overlordship. This situation is the most likely scenario for imperialism to stake out for itself a formal military base ostensibly to police Qaddafy but positioned equally to challenge the maturing aspirations of the wider Arab revolution. The immediate issue is this: is it possible to determine at this moment that this change has already passed, that the imperialist aspect has already transcended the civil war aspect?
However we assess these prospects, what we have no justification for assuming is that the inevitability of that metamorphosis is a foregone conclusion of imperial intervention. Even less that it has already transpired. And both of these are precisely what our critics are guilty of. And even here, they are incoherent. For if the revolution has already been betrayed by imperialism, on what basis can one still claim to support it? Or more pertinently, if this were the reality, how could we help the Libyan freedom fighters to reclaim their revolution? The “stop the bombing” trope addresses neither issue.
But recognition of the danger in this metamorphosis completing itself also reinforces why we as socialists cannot and should not take or accept responsibility for an imperial intervention, whatever the short term advantages it confers. Only a decisive victory for the rebels can put democracy at the helm. Military collaboration is now an aid and we cannot flinch from this conclusion. It may yet prove a snare.
There is, in terms of arguments on the left at least, a further analogy with the first American revolution as well - namely the reactionary character of the revolutionary leaders and much of the revolutionary movement as a whole. Some on the left have made great play of the political nature of the Libyan resistance, but surely a *much* stronger case could be made against support for the American war of independence on the grounds of the revolutionary leaders' attitudes to black people, slavery and native Americans... This is how the Argentine Marxist Daniel Gaido describes the struggle:
"The American revolution was therefore a hundred percent settlers' affair: it was largely waged against the native inhabitants of the country. The other victims of English colonialism - the slaves kidnapped in Africa - also remained largely indifferent or hostile to the settlers' liberation movement, which is not surprising if we remember that Thomas Jefferson owned over 175 slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence... during the Revolutionary War it was the British who, for purely opportunistic reasons, granted freedom to runaway slaves reaching their lines and protected the Indian tribes west of the Appalachians from the spread of white settlement - that is from genocide. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the left wing of the Revolution, accused the British king George III of having "excited domestic [i.e. slave] insurrections among us," and of having "endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages [sic]..." The Revolution resulted in the establishment of what historians called a Herrenvolk (ruling people or race) democracy, in which immigrants from Europe were turned into "whites" and granted political rights while Indians and slaves were excluded from the category of citizens."
And yet Barry is quite right to assume that revolutionary socialists, would, if we had been around at the time, championed the American struggle against British colonialism. And in comparison, the program of the Libyan rebels is positively progressive.