For anyone who believes in basic human freedom, the fact that Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year long reign of autocratic terror in Libya is seemingly at an end must be a cause for celebration.
As we go to press fighting is still going on in the capital Tripoli, but for the vast majority of Libyan people it seems to be the return of hope.
Qaddafi’s rule was characterised by the most brutal extermination of all political opposition. Torture and public execution were commonplace. The scenes of mass jubilation on the streets of Tripoli and other Libyan cities that greeted the rebels’ advances are an inspiring expression of joy and relief that Qaddafi’s vice-like grip on power is irreversibly loosening.
But while celebration and hope are the proper first reactions, they must be tempered by a sober assessment of the uncertain political future the Libyan people now face.
The opposition which organised the fighting against Qaddafi on the ground, its leaders grouped in the National Transitional Council, appears to contain very diverse political elements, some at odds with each other. Some are secular, some Islamist. The rebels included some defectors from Qaddafi’s regime and some supporters of the deposed monarchy. A competitive battle to shape Libya’s future is now underway.
The Transitional National Council’s “Draft Constitutional Charter” already expresses many of those contradictions; it seeks to enshrine freedoms of assembly and association, as well as the right to strike, but also states that Islamic Shari’a is the “principal source of legislation”. There will be battles over women’s rights, Libya’s relationship to foreign countries and over control of its natural resources. Tribal tension may blight the country as sectarian tensions have blighted post-Ba’athism Iraq.
For us, the point-of-departure is workers’ organisation; but there is next to no working-class organisation in Libya. That is hardly surprising, given the brutal nature of Qaddafi’s rule. But if Libya’s future is to be even a minimally democratic one, trade unions and working-class political organisations need space to develop and assert themselves. The basic levels of freedom that we hope will exist in the new Libya — freedoms that did not exist, that could not have existed – under Qaddafi will make such developments possible.
Perversely, some on the would-be left in Britain will not share in the Libyan people’s joy. The Stop the War Coalition, led by Stalinists like Andrew Murray and the eclectic Counterfire group, prefers to emphasise the “negative aspects” of the overthrow of the regime, and can only bring itself to say that “many Libyans may welcome the outcome, and will be glad to see the back of Qaddafi”. The word “many” does not even begin to quantify the immense, mass, celebration that is now taking place in Libya. And mealy-mouthed does not describe this zombie-like response to these tremendous events.
Outright support for Qaddafi is confined to a marginal fringe of sects like the “Trotskyist” Workers' Revolutionary Party.
For most of the far-left, the intervention of NATO in Libya cancelled out the genuine democratic content of the Libyan uprising. To argue that NATO somehow engineered or orchestrated the Libyan uprising is a form of “anti-imperialism” based on a cynical, nihilistic defeatism. If American imperialism is so all-powerful and all-pervading that it can conjure up a mass movement in a foreign country entirely at will, then surely it is unbeatable? Of course the many kinds of imperialist interests that will now come to the surface in Libya — around oil, and rebuilding infrastructure — will not be there to act in the interests of democracy or workers’ rights.
But in fact the fundamental lesson of Libya — as with all the heroic and inspiring uprisings we have see in the Middle East and North Africa this year — is that no ruling class is unbeatable. Those on the left have no business ignoring, marginalising or misrepresenting the political will of the Libyan people who organised to overthrow a tyrant.
The NATO intervention helped them by preventing the crushing of the uprising at a critical point. That is a good thing. But this victory does not belong to NATO, who intervened for their own reasons. It belongs to the Libyan people who fought and died to get rid of Qaddafi and who remained resolute in the face of conditions far worse than any more-anti-imperialist-than-thou demagogue on the British left will ever have to face.
Workers’ Liberty believes that a people staring down the wrong end of a state-sanctioned massacre have the right to call for assistance, even from imperialist powers. It is not for us, from the safety of Britain, to sanctimoniously condemn as insufficiently “anti-imperialist” the Libyans who demanded NATO intervention, such as the thousands of women who demonstrated in Benghazi in early March.
We know imperialism will only act in its own interests, and if and when it intervenes it will do so using its own, blundering, means. We offered NATO no positive support, trust or confidence. But when such an intervention is all that stands between the continued existence of a revolutionary movement and its annihilation, it is irresponsible and morally degenerate to simply demand that it ceases, or to oppose it ever taking place. We believe that the gains of the uprising vindicate that view.
What now? At this stage, when much still hangs in the balance in Libya, and at this distance, our main job is to support any elements struggling for the maximum democracy and the maximum freedom.
If working-class organisation is our starting point, then the fundamental question must be whether that organisation is more or less possible, easier or harder, without the crushing, murderous Qaddafi regime.
The answer is that it is infinitely more possible. And that alone is cause for celebration and hope.