The left and Libya

Submitted by Matthew on 6 April, 2011 - 1:00

A statement about Libya has appeared on the website of Unite, declaring itself simply to be a “Unite statement” without any indication of what committee of the union it was endorsed by. It seems to have been presented to the national executive as a ready-made “take it or leave it” statement. Its line is “end the intervention now!”.

Amongst other spurious reasons, the statement cites the opposition of China and Russia as reasons for straightforwardly campaigning against the intervention — as if the position of these gangster-capitalist, totalitarian states was any kind of benchmark for the trade union movement.

The statement says that the union “holds no brief for Colonel Gaddafi [sic]” and that it “supports the movements for democracy and freedom now developing across the Arab world”, but that's as close as it gets to actually supporting the Libyan rebellion or acknowledging that there is any dynamic at work here other than the western intervention.

Could it be that, rather than reflecting a cavalier lack of concern for the fate of the Libyan rebellion amongst the membership of Britain's biggest union, the statement is more a reflection of the politics of Andrew Murray — Stop the War's head-honcho, Unite's national communications and press officer and former employee of Stalinist state news agency Novosti?

Murray is a straight-down-the-line Stalinist Cold Warrior; now that his beloved Eastern Bloc is no more, he has replaced it in his world schema with an abstract “anti-imperialism”, which Qaddafi presumably represents on some level. Whatever they think about the situation, Unite members should ask why their union is putting out seemingly unilateral statements on major international issues.

To be fair to Murray, though, he is an out-and-out Stalinist who has never pretended to be otherwise. The politics in Unite’s statement are consistent with his tradition. More galling is the recent article from Alex Callinicos, one of Britain's most prominent “Trotskyist” “intellectuals” (it’s hard to decide to which word Callinicos has less claim).

Structured as a reply to Gilbert Achcar (who, while frequently politically muddleheaded himself, has a far greater claim to both terms and whose position on Libya is closer to that argued by this paper), Callinicos explains that socialists simply have no choice but to oppose the intervention because the people carrying it out are imperialists and a lot of the people who support it are right-wingers. And that’s that.

He does not deal with the substantive argument of revolutionaries like Achcar and many others on the left — that, whatever the motives and intentions of the imperialists, the intervention had the concrete effect of preventing the massacre of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, an outcome that outweighs other concerns in this situation.

Callinicos does approach this argument in his final paragraph, but it is with the most breathtaking callousness. “There is the final argument,” Callinicos says, “that intervention prevented a massacre in Benghazi.” Is this argument correct? No says, Callinicos: “the sad fact is that massacres are a chronic feature of capitalism”, and “the revolutionary left is, alas, too weak to stop them.”

Words fail us. He might as well say “brutal exploitation is a chronic feature of capitalism, the revolutionary left is too weak to stop it, so what's the point in going on strike?” These words by Trotsky could have been written for Professor Callinicos: “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.”

Fortunately not everyone on the international left is quite as bad as this. The debate has been much more open and rational than previous debate on imperialism and voices like Achcar’s have added a dose of sanity. The American Marxist Richard Greeman, now based in France, has also provided a thoughtful contribution.

“The alternative to this intervention”, Greeman writes, would have been a bloody massacre of the democratic forces by a horrific dictatorship — one that the same imperialists supported with money and arms up until yesterday. I also recognise that the Libyan democratic forces have asked for this intervention — while excluding any Iraq-style on-the-ground NATO invasion.

“So — like many of my Arab friends here in France — I am not signing on to the petty-bourgeois left’s one-sided ‘stop the bombing’ campaign, which distorts reality in favour of ‘anti-imperialist’ ideology and objectively supports the maniacal Qaddafi’s murderous campaign against his own people […]

“During most of my life-time the ‘left’ and much of the peace movement supported totalitarian Communist regimes and parties as ‘anti-imperialist’, and now it is objectively supporting that great ‘anti-imperialist’ Qaddafi! When will some people learn that the enemies of our enemies are not necessarily our friends?

“It is all too easy to soothe the liberal conscience by being against — for example against the US government, which I agree is always motivated by power and greed. Much more complicated to say what you’re for and to develop links of solidarity with people in struggle, like the women and workers’ movements US-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq as well as in the newly vibrant Arab world. Radical posturing may feel good, but what is needed is ongoing solidarity with people in struggle — the long haul — which is not so easy. For those who wish to join the popular resistance, I recommend becoming part of US Labour Against the War which gives direct support to the struggle for labour and women’s rights in the Middle East.”

• The full article can be read at


Submitted by guenter on Sun, 10/04/2011 - 13:02

He does not deal with the substantive argument of revolutionaries like Achcar and many others on the left — that, whatever the motives and intentions of the imperialists, the intervention had the concrete effect of preventing the massacre of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, an outcome that outweighs other concerns in this situation.

plain nonsense. no massacre was prevented, and ghadaffi is still there. the intervention made him stronger. and the intervention still is for oil and part of an imperialist worldstrategy and cant be seen isolated from interventions in iraq, afghanistan and so on. another longgoing war.

Submitted by danrawnsley on Sun, 10/04/2011 - 16:32

Guenter, you're obscuring what really happened in Libya. You claim that 'no massacre was prevented'. Before the no fly zone was imposed and the intervention began Gaddafi's forces had pushed the rebels all the way back to Benghazi and were preparing to attack the city. The balance of forces was weighed so far in favour of Gaddafi that victory for him was a certainty. In short, he had an air force and the rebels didn't. I would like to know where your information is coming from, what makes you confident that the rebels could've repelled Gaddafi's soldiers? How do you see the rebels winning without the no fly zone?

Of course we should point out that bourgeois forces intervene to serve their own interests, but it doesn't immediately follow that you call for a halt to their intervention or that you actively oppose it; socialists don't exist to blindly oppose everything the bourgeoisie does. Should socialists have opposed the use of a train provided by the German foreign minister to transport Lenin and other Bolsheviks from Switzerland to Petrograd in 1917? It was, without a doubt a calculated intervention by the German ruling class to take Russia out of the First World War.

Submitted by DB on Sun, 17/04/2011 - 14:51

Where is Workers Liberty's analysis of the interests which have driven the bourgeois forces to intervene in Libya? Looking through the articles on this website, it seems they merit no more than a passing mention from most AWL comrades; as if the motivations and strategic considerations of the Western powers in intervening against a dictator in Libya (but not Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi etc.) can be written off in a sentence or two ("of course we have no illusions!") to be included as an afterthought at the end of every piece. Far more important, apparently, is the need to whip up support for this intervention and denounce anyone on the Left who is anything less than 110% behind it.

Sadly the impression given is one of uncritical support not only for military intervention but also for the political imperatives of the US and European ruling classes on this issue. You would think that a properly Third Campist position on the matter, if it included limited support for Western military operations against Gadaffi (where they coincided with the express interests of the Libyan working class), would be coupled with rigorous and unrelenting criticism of the Western powers' real ambitions in Libya, including some consideration of the perils attached to the intervention, the strings that may be attached to such "favours", and the possible political consequences for any post-conflict settlement. You would think a Third Campist position might acknowledge that, even if you cannot oppose an intervention of this nature, nor can you give it wholehearted support on the ruling class's own terms. Sadly I don't think the AWL has pulled this off, and, as is so often the case, it finds itself politically closer to the First Camp than the Third.


Submitted by edwardm on Sun, 17/04/2011 - 20:39


Does this post mean you agree with us, but you think that the way we have presented our ideas could be better?

Or do you disagree with us?

You acknowledge that we are critical, untrusting, etc. of the NATO bombardment, that we do counsel no illusions in their motives - but you say that "Sadly the impression given is one of uncritical support". What does this mean? Either you can tell that we are critical of NATO and their motives: or you can't. Which is it?


Submitted by DB on Sun, 17/04/2011 - 22:39

EPM: it's not so much a matter of presentation as a matter of emphasis with real political implications. To answer your questions briefly, no, I can't really tell if some comrades are critical of NATO and their motives, because there doesn't seem to have been any detailed consideration of what those motives are, and where they might lead, let alone any critique or condemnation. The "no illusions" clause rings quite hollow in this context, and does nothing to allay the impression that AWL isn't particularly interested in analysing or condemning the politics of the ruling class. And these things should not just be taken for granted: it's imperative that your opposition to their rationalisations and motivations for intervention are made as loudly and consistently as possible, if only to reign them in, otherwise you're basically in the First Camp: pro-intervention, largely uncritical of its chief proponents, silent on the wider questions of what Western power represents in Libya and the Middle East.

Just to clarify my own view, I'll be honest and say I couldn't bring myself to oppose a military operation whose immediate outcome was to prevent the massacre of an uprising; but nor could I wholeheartedly support it, given that NATO's motives are cynical and the longer term consequences for Libya and the region could be hardly much better than if Gadaffi had crushed the uprising last month. We probably agree that it's possible to support military operations which coincide with the interests of the working class without lending political support to those responsible for the operations. For example, I would passively support the guns of a Hamas militant if, in a conflict situation, they were turned upon an IDF regiment that was engaged in the crushing of an uprising by the Palestinian working class. But I would simultaneously want to expose to the highest degree possible the dangers of Hamas' politics and wider military strategy. All I can think to do in this case is take a similar stand: whilst not opposing that initial action, I do support the exposure and condemnation of NATO's politics and wider strategy in the loudest and strongest terms.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 18/04/2011 - 11:20


I don't think D.B. is who you think they are. The "D.B" who called for "troops out of Haiti now!" when they were administering aid writes on this website under his full name (David Broder) and also has a "troops out now/stop the intervention now" position on Libya, unlike the D.B. above.


I think it's pretty clear that there has been no "silence" about NATO motives in our coverage, but it's certainly true that the emphasis has been elsewhere. That's because we're a small organisation active on a small left. In our articles about Libya we're trying to intervene in and shape a debate on the far-left of the labour movement. Within that debate, everyone involved knows that western imperialism is bad and has nefarious motives. The contentious issue is whether it is necessary to actively oppose everything western imperialism does even if a given action has a (perhaps limited, temporary or unstable) positive outcome or side-effect. Therefore the emphasis of our coverage has been on that aspect. Maybe you think that emphasis is wrong and that we should be writing our paper differently; that's a legitimate argument, but I don't think it's fair to imply that we're naive about NATO's motives.


Daniel Randall

Submitted by guenter on Tue, 19/04/2011 - 00:48

as if the motivations and strategic considerations of the Western powers in intervening against a dictator in Libya (but not Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi etc.) -DB

DB said the right thing , and i myself often asked b4 on various threads when AWL will push 4 the interventions in bahrain, yemen, saudi, syria etc. and if it wanna risk a worldwar then. i never earned an reply, and DB, instead of earning an serious reply, is considered by martin as "only an idiot".
this page cant be taken serious anymore

Submitted by guenter on Tue, 19/04/2011 - 12:43

i think it was easy 2 understand what i meant: following the AWL-logic aout lybia, AWL should consequently call 4 an intervention in all those countries where dictators are. but this would be playing with creating a worldwar.

Submitted by DB on Tue, 19/04/2011 - 14:33

Daniel/Martin - thanks for your measured responses, appreciated. No probs re. the confusion of my initials, easily done.


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