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Revolution, intervention and solidarity -Libya and the ‘anti-imperialist’ left, part 1

The question of support for the Libyan revolution from any national army may soon become moot – at the moment it appears that the best the rebels can hope for is to maintain a zone in the east, and dig in for civil war; at worst, they will be rapidly overcome, with pretty hideous consequences. In a couple of previous articles I pointed out how the revolution had shown up any claim by the right commentariat and the pro-Iraq-war left to being in favour of genuine liberation.

But the right was ever thus. The left is a different matter. And there is no doubt that the Libyan revolution has taken a reflex ‘anti-involvement’ position (to use as neutral a term as possible) to the point of crisis. I’ve got an overview of what that is in today’s Crikey. But for masochists, marxists and theorists, insofar as that is not a triple tautology, a more extended argument is required.

So rather than starting this as a critique of other positions, I’ll start out with what I believe is a clear statement of a consistent, left and revolutionary one, and then examine the alternative case in its best expressions. Support and Intervention: Legitimacy, Solidarity, Request, Judgement.

For various reasons of convenience for many of those in the argument, the question of involvement in Libya has been rolled into a single concept- that of ‘intervention’, a concept which appears to cover everything from the unilateral and uninvited bombing flat of a country, to supplying arms to a people fighting for their lives – anything, indeed, as long as the agent is a nation-state, or a supra-state.

The blanket concept of ‘intervention’ does two things: it implicitly grants subjectivity and agency to the military power in question, as the crucial question, and it assumes the legitimacy of the nation-state as a bounded entity. The debate on Libya, the rebels and the west became so dominated by notions of ‘intervention’ that it was utterly skewed from the start.

The Libyan revolution began as a roll-over from Tunisia and Egypt, connecting with a range of local labour, and other struggles, and caught fire in the Eastern city of Benghazi. From the start it was a real revolution, the first we’ve seen in this cycle, pushing not merely for change in the political arrangements, but upending social life, and demanding that the political system be rebuilt from scratch. Not only was it a mass uprising, but it quickly acquired leadership – a group that would in several days become the National Transitional Council, which would in turn establish forms of representation and delegation.

Like most revolutionary leaderships the Council is a coalition of genuine revolutionaries, moderates who see no other way, opportunists and adventurers. Its leaders were some of Gaddafi’s own ministers who had quickly defected, and they became its most vocal spokespeople. One wasn’t filled with confidence about their pure-heartedness. Nor were they the only voice in the revolution. But they were the ones who established a leadership structure capable of making the rebels a co-ordinated force, and they appear to have acquired legitimacy as people ceded to them. A few days later, the Council issued this statement.

“Finally, even though the balance of power is uneven between the defenceless protestors and the tyrant regime’s mercenaries and private battalions, we will relay on the will of our people for a free and dignified existence. Furthermore, we request from the international community to fulfil its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity without any direct military intervention on Libya soil. “<

Some thought this contradictory. They were reading it too metaphorically. The reference to soil was literal. They did not want troops on the ground to invade Libya. They did however want support and assistance. In the next couple of days, the head of the council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil made this statement:

"It has to be immediate action. "The longer the situation carries on, the more blood is shed. That's the message that we want to send to the international community. They have to live up to their responsibility with regards to this."

Thus the question has never been about invasion, or intervention. It has been about a request for support, from the most prominent representatives of an uprising that most of us have no trouble believing in. So an entirely different situation has to be reasoned through.

What is distinctive about a request for support above all is that it reverses the presumption of agency from that which is presumed in the nature of an 'intervention'. The request presumes solidarity and shared aims, and it demands that one respond to it, either positively or negatively. The distinctive thing about a request is that there is no possibility of a non-response, for even silence is a form of response, a refusal.

This distinction – between the request, which generates support, and the intervention which is based on a denial of a people's political agency – has been entirely ignored by what it seems convenient to call the 'anti-imperialist' left (as long as it's understood that the label does not imply exclusivity). Much of it, as detailed in my Crikey story, was simply an utterly dishonest rendering of the military situation, by the official 'far left' papers: the rebels were fighting back after setbacks, the West was the true danger to the revolution etc. This was obvious junk, designed to obscure the fact that the question of additional military force was looking increasingly likely to be the one thing that might give the revolution a real chance of success.

Another fabrication, equally deceitful, was to simply flat out argue that the “Libyan people do not want 'intervention'. Noam Chomsky made this claim on BBC's Newsnight. The official socialist papers made it too. In Australia, left blogger Benjamin Solah made the bald assertion that:

“It is clear that the Libyan people do not want and also need no involvement from the outside. The people of the Middle want no such thing either. “ (Middle? Hobbits?)

More challenging was the question of legitimacy. Who do we determine that anyone has the right to ask for something that can be considered a request in the first place? The capacity for opportunism is immense, as is a reverse version of the process, whereby a leadership group is merely constituted for the purpose of making a request. The KLA in the Balkans is the supreme example of this – a group of hastily formed group out of genuine community defenders, Albanian stalinists, and criminals in equal measure. They usurped the mass-based leadership of Rugova, who had opposed intervention, and established a parallel civil society in Kosovo to create real autonomy, and invited the US and NATO in. The result is that Kosovo is now a gangster-state, which will, at some point, be rediscovered as a problem (a Muslim one at that) on Europe’s doorstep.

But the Libyan Transitional Council couldn’t be tarred with this brush – there simply was no leadership group prior to its hasty establishment. It usurped no-one. The question was then, could it even be respected as someone making a legitimate request.

For John Passant, a Socialist Alternative member blogging at ‘En Passant’, the past history of some of the Council’s participants ruled this out. He responded to my assertion that the National Transitional Council and its spokesperson should be regarded as a legitimite representative.

The situation is changing as Gaddafi wins some military gains and will if successful slaughter tens, if not hundreds of thousands of his people.

That may explain why a week before the former [Gaddafi] Minister was arguing against foreign intervention and today he is not. He is hardly a credible anti-imperialist and pro-people revolutionary source and certainly not one the left should rely on to justify unleashing the forces of imperialism in any form on Libya.”

This seems a bizarrely purist notion of who can speak, indeed a rather bourgeois one. Credibility did not rest on his personal integrity it rested on the fact that he was speaking for a leadership group.

Passant’s implicit idea was that one could question the legitimacy of the leadership group (a fair enough assertion) and, should they be somewhat tarnished, simply let the question lie. It appears to be a way of denying that there is any request on the table – and thus to reframe the question as one of intervention.

The debate, which continued on Lavartus Prodeo, elicited a response from Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defense of Murder, who put some challenging conditions on legitimacy:

It… matters whether we have established, or even attempted to establish, that this request both reflects the broad thrust of opinion in the revolutionary movement. So far, there have been a number of equivocating calls from individuals in the resistance. It is not good enough to cede judgment in this situation – you still have a responsibility, whether you like it or not, to try to adjudge whether in making such a call those elements are selling the revolution a pup. It also matters whether there are alternatives. In fact, there are a host of regional actors – Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia – who are respected, who have some werewithal to assist, and who are part of a regional constellation of forces “

This was something of a misconstruction of events. By the time Seymour wrote this reply, the Transitional Council had formed, and there was a degree of evidence that it was the largest de facto leadership group of the revolution. Seymour’s position appears to be that you can simply decide to ignore the fact that the people who are uprising have themselves ceded legitimacy to a central group in some degree. Effectively, you override the judgements these people make, and substitute a more abstract and magisterial one of your own – once again denying that a request has been made, and that you have anything to answer. The question can then once again be reframed as one of ‘intervention’.

Of course it is quite legitimate to refuse a request of this nature, on the grounds of a strict anti-imperialism – that one will never support a call, even by the revolutionaries themselves, for involvement by imperialist powers. But you can’t then pretend to a continued solidarity with the people who are rising up. You have refused their request (or the implicit request that you pressure your own government to get involved), and thus did not help when you could. The result is effectively is that you’ve put anti-imperialism ahead of revolution.

For the anti-imperialist left, this is a category-busting decision to make. To try and close that gap, Seymour builds on the substitution of his own judgement, to effectively make the Libyans’ strategic and tactical considerations for them. This is the tenor of Seymour’s other comments (which are answering an admittedly pot-kettle charge of being armchair/laptop revolutionaries):

You are calling for the region’s most brutal, thuggish forces to impose a military solution, though limited in principle by a UN remit, to one front in a region-wide revolution that is in part aimed against those forces. Your basis for doing so is your apparent commitment to human rights and democracy, your support for these revolutionaries.

Given this, it’s of some moment whether what you’re doing really amounts to solidarity, or whether it’s a risk-free long-distance call for war of the sort that people made over Kosovo to such appalling effect, and which contributed to the moralisation of imperialist violence in the 2000s.

Given that you show absolutely zero concern for any of the ways in which this could go awry, and could be used to impede the revolutionary wage, and given that you don’t appear to have done anything much about your passionate support for Libyan revolutionaries beyond calling for imperialist states to intervene militarily, it looks very much like the latter. “

The passage is one of near total-misconstruction. The largest leadership group of the Libyan revolution is calling for involvement, and we are debating whether we should support that. ‘Human rights’ plays no part in this call -it’s about pushing for the extra muscle the revolutionaries want to make revolution. The Kosovo and ‘long distance war’ points are irrelevant and pot-kettle respectively.

The most curious statement is that one shows ‘absolutely zero concern for the ways in which this could go awry’. The answer to this starkly, is, yes, (we) haven’t – because it’s not our place to consider that if the request can be reasonably assessed as legitimate. What could be more condescending, more imperious than to decide whether a bunch of people really know what they’re doing? The judgement, it has to be said, has a colonial air about it. It is redolent of older imperial powers (or Second International Marxists, come to that), deciding that colonised people might not be acting in their own best interests were they to go for immediate self-determination. Yes, it might be a disaster. It might be counter-productive. But freedom if it means anything is the freedom to fuck up. You don’t have to support if you think it is stupid, but you do have to be honest about your withdrawal of solidarity.

Indeed, you must have the willingness to play for high stakes, and fuck up, if you’re going to do that sort of politics. And that goes to the heart of the ‘anti-imperialist’ left’s dilemma – their collapse into a doctrinaire position so rigid and austere that any radical audacity has long since been leached out of it. The result is a bizarre passivity, which has effectively turned the far-left groups into conservatives, thinking out politics in terms of decades and centuries, making prudent and incremental changes, and utterly unable to deal with contradictory situations as they arise. Which will have to be the subject of a second post.


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  • 1
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    For a sensible analysis read Lenins Tomb: http://leninology.blogspot.com/2011/03/doomed-to-repetition.html
    and consider what role foreign governments/forces have played historically, propping up dictators and selling Gaddafi weapons, and ask yourself how could they help the revolution and why would they want to.
    True solidarity with the revolution looks like the ordinary Egyptian’s who have been driving car loads of food, medical supplies and other goods into Libya for the protesters.

  • 2
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Guy Rundle — in his rush to lay the basis for what I’m sure will be an excruciating attempt to show he’s much more imbued with revolutionary tactical genius than the far Left in Part Two — has constructed a case for supporting Libyan opposition calls for some kind of Western military intervention (a no-fly zone is what is being talked about here) that seems to be based on a very quaint liberal understanding of imperialism. Otherwise it is difficult to grasp how he thinks that effective solidarity is in supporting those calls.

    If imperialism was just about powerful nation states doing bad things to weak & poor peoples, then the idea of dragging them into Libya to do some good would probably be a reasonable call. But in reality imperialism is a global system of power-relations that serves the economic and political interests of a small number of very powerful nations, like the ones in North America and Europe whose politicians are so keen on the NFZ. Those powers will only intervene when they can see a dividend, a pound of flesh, for their actions. And in the current MENA scenario, it seems pretty clear that they are motivated by a desire to gain a foothold in any post-Gaddafi settlement that will be at least as amenable to their interests as Gaddafi had become until a few weeks ago when they ditched him. The only other explanation for the cross-partisan support for intervention among Western elites that suddenly the people who supported murderous regimes and brutal occupations have seen the light because of the “poor little Libyans”.

    Any intervention by imperialist countries across the borders of a sovereign state, even if it is proclaimed to be in the name of saving lives, has further impacts that cannot be reduced to that one particular life-saving operation. Those impacts occur locally and more widely, and Guy has to reduce the issues to some very narrow parameters to make his case hang together, to the point of admitting things might “fuck up” but not really saying why they might. In fact the US will seek to promote those forces within the Libyan opposition that are most willing to deliver an outcome the US favours. And let’s not kid ourselves that having the full might of American airpower standing behind you won’t make it much easier to “convince” others that this is the best way forward for the opposition.

    Apart from the distorting effects this will have on the Libyan revolution, which will have to stop being truly revolutionary pretty quickly if the US is to maintain its support, it will also be a blow for resistance movements across the MENA region. This is simply because the US wants to restabilise the region even if, as the WSJ reported just 10 days ago ( http://on.wsj.com/hVQmLy ), that means putting people’s democratic and reform aspirations on hold. Is that really what Guy thinks is a revolutionary outcome, strengthening the hand of these thugs?

    I think Guy’s description of the KLA is telling, because it seems he has to construe them in very negative terms to justify his opposition to their having pulled NATO in on their side in 1999. NATO is a military alliance of the most powerful Atlantic states which was looking for openings to extend its domination eastwards, something it very much gained from the events back then (bypassing even the need for a UN figleaf). The bombing campaign also emboldenend the US to become more aggressive on the world stage, as it was still suffering from the Vietnam Syndrome then. Surely those manoeuvres were reason in themselves for the Left to argue against the bombing campaign? No need to prove the KLA were morally suspect; it’s their pro-imperial political strategy that stunk (and which gave us the mess Guy correctly describes).

    In resistance movements there will always be right-wing and/or corrupt elements seeking to shift the situation in their favour. And when resistance is being badly undermined by military attack, arguments for dragging in an imperialist power can gain a real purchase among ordinary people struggling against terrible odds, allowing the leadership elements who articulate such a strategy to gain respectability. Guy is therefore both too harsh on the KLA and too soft on sections of the Libyan rebels by drawing such a clear distinction between the two scenarios — the fact is that rebellions are never pure and trying to pick winners on the basis of looks rather than hard-headed examination of what effect proposed policies might have abrogates political responsibility.

    Guy’s talk of “solidarity” versus “passivity” has a decidedly hollow ring, too. Because the request is not for solidarity from us, but from our ruling classes and their military machines. We of the Left will remain passive, except insofar as we cheerlead and construct justifications for our rulers’ self-interested efforts (as Bob Brown already seems to be doing).

    I would propose we can do something active here: To name Western imperialism, in which Australia plays an important secondary role, as the worst problem in the Middle East and to demand it stops meddling. I’d be keen to demonstrate quite actively against Australian support for a no-fly zone, linking it to the need to end Western backing for the barbarous regimes which have only started to be dismantled by the people who have so long suffered under them. That’s active support for the Libyan people not having to live under a new regime that serves the interests of both local elites and their Western backers. Our ability to build such solidarity here is hampered by the collapse of progressives like Guy — and more importantly the Greens — into seeing imperialism as a potential ally of the democratic revolutions of the Arab world.

  • 3
    Richard Seymour
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Your case hinges to a large degree on the assumption – and it is just that – that the Libyan National Council is an authoritative body representing all or at least most the revolutionary bodies, and whose decisions reflect the wishes of the majority of Libyan revolutionaries. This is your trump card, and if it turns out to be false, then your case falls to pieces. In fact, in the light of everything I have been able to digest, no such thing appears to be the case. Eg:


    What happened was that Jalil, a number of businessmen, academics and military officials met very early on to form a transitional council of some sort. In theory it was to involve representatives from the revolutionary councils, with authority being delegated to them. But, as they acknowledge, they have no authority – they just assumed the leadership position. The leadership is very largely comprised of Benghazi-based elites, and it would be an assumption and no more to infer that their position is widely shared even in the working class neighbourhoods of Benghazi, never mind the slums, rural areas and shanty towns of the east. Their opinions are largely not even being canvassed, and you would find that among them are the most vehemently anti-imperialist political forces in the region, usually of an Islamist hue.

    So your inference works purely by assuming that the revolution is univocal, contains no serious internal differences on matters of principle, strategy, or interest. On the basis of that assumption, you think you have no responsibility to find out what is actually taking place. You have your trump card, and that’s all that matters. You proceed to argue, said trump card in hand, that: “it’s not our place to consider that if the request can be reasonably assessed as legitimate”. But it is, because we are strategically placed populations whose assent or at least acquiescence matters to the war-making powers. That is the reason for the ‘flare’ strategy embarked on by the LNC leadership. We are effectively being asked to encourage the most ruthlessly violent actors in world affairs, far worse than Qadhafi in terms of recent record, to morph into humanitarian activists for a few weeks or so. Given how such legitimacy can be used by those actors, it is absolutely incumbent on us to judge such calls very carefully.

    You maintain that this stance is in some way analogous to that of the old colonial Left who did not favour self-determination for the colonised on the grounds that they may misuse their freedom. I’m not sure you chose the right foil to make that argument against, but let me just bring you up to speed on where we are: 1) Libya is not a colonial dependency any more, so the question of its self-determination does not arise unless an external power attempts to abridge it; 2) Libyans will make their decisions and alliances as they see fit, and we are not in any position to prevent them from doing so. Libyans will also hold the LNC to account for their tactical decisions. The only reason our judgment comes into it is because we are being asked to endorse, back up and amplify calls for intervention by states over which we have a small degree of influence; 3) Inasmuch as we do have to exercise our judgment, we will be taking the well-being of millions of Libyans who are not presently being included in the debate into our hands, risking their lives, if we endorse the calls for a no-fly zone, air strikes and assassination. Your haste in assuming that you have the right to do so, because you believe you have a moral trump card, is redolent of nothing so much as those who cited the KLA or the Iraqi exiles or dear old Izetbegovic and their pleas for intervention as an unanswerable argument in its favour. It was wrong then, and it’s very likely to be wrong now.

  • 4
    Guy Rundle
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    well Tad

    i’ll deal with some of your points on board in the next post. But if you find it excruciating or think that i’m claiming some ‘genius’, then don’t read it. sounds like it’s hitting a nerve.

  • 5
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Hitting a nerve? Hardly.

    “Excruciating” because you’re using your Crikey platform (twice in one day, as it turns out) to act like one of those domesticated progressives who The Australian manages to dig up to lecture their former comrades and dream up the most convoluted justifications for lining up with the ruling class, the state and/or imperialism. Like you, those commentators always want to tie it to sweeping statements about the deeper failure of the Left to live up to some imagined ideal of moral and strategic thinking/conduct.

    I had expected much better from you than this.

  • 6
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I gotta agree with some of Dr Tad’s points. Focussing on the word ‘intervention’ for a start is a red herring, and its a bit pedantic, sorry Guy, to be talking ‘support’ vs ‘intervention’ when essentially they are the same thing. Someone else coming in to your fight to either back you up or back the other guy up. Whether you ask for it or not makes no difference. If I’m getting beat up in the playground and I scream for help – does it matter whether the helper is called a ‘supporter’ or an ‘intervener’? No. What matters is whether or not the helper a) does any good, b) gets himself beaten up, c) gets his whole family targeted by the bully who 5 mins ago was only beating me up.

    “Just calling for a no fly zone”, I mean if you can tell me what that actually means I might be able to form an opinion on it. Just blocking signals? Real planes flying overhead? What if the planes get targeted? What if G stops trying to bomb from the air and just decides to drive tanks over his citizens instead? Then what? Libya is scr–ewed because we are “just calling for a NFZ”?

    What if he stops flying planes over Libya but sends them to Australia instead? Kevin Rudd has been pretty vocal about the NFZ – maybe its payback time?

    WE DONT KNOW HOW IT ENDS. Please, at least acknowledge that point.

  • 7
    Julian Fitzgibbon
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that everything that could be said about invading Libya, could have been said about invading Iraq. Any rational assessment would place Gaddafi light years ahead of Saddam Hussein in terms of the type of regime he runs. So it would appear that if only George Bush jnr had marketed Iraq better – less WMDs and more “attacks own civilians” – he would have had Mr Rundle and the “Who Would Wikileaks Bomb” crowd cheering him on.

    My view is we need to place as much value on the life of Libyan soldiers as we do on every other Libyan. The average Libyan soldier has done nothing wrong, simply obeyed legitimate authority and tried to restore order from armed gangs and militias. What else can he do in response to people who pick up rpgs and AK-47s? What right then, do we have to place him in our cross-hairs? To help soothe Kevin Rudd’s hurt feelings over losing the prime ministership?

    “The law is not a “light” for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any kind. …The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.”

    As I see it, the Libyan police and soldiers stayed on that causeway and the armed militias jumped off it. The reward for staying on the causeway of legitimacy seems to be to become the target of overwhelming hegemonic force from the skies. All because “doctors” keep ringing Al Jazeera and say things like “they are targeting ambulances now. I just saw a little girl blown in half”? I don’t support intervention or at least this intervention, because I lack the moral courage to sentence Libyan soldiers to death. Perhaps if clear ceasefire lines were laid down and ceasefire obligations were placed on both sides – including behind the lines of their opponents – you could mount a case. But it seems obvious that UK, US and France just see this as a step towards complete regime change.

    I wonder if we compare the situation in Libya in January 2011 how long it will be before the Libyan people be living in as much security and as much prosperity again?

  • 8
    John Reidy
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I think this line sums it up:

    The result is effectively is that you’ve put anti-imperialism ahead of revolution.

    The revolution – or anything similar to it is not going to arrive all packaged up, labeled and ideologically pure – it never has.

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