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.