Middle East

Mar 17, 2011

Libya and the anti-imperialist left 2 – ideology, audacity and politics


Guy Rundle


On ‘The Stump’ a few days ago, I gave an extended argument as to why calls by the leadership of the Libyan revolution for arms and a ‘no-fly zone’ imposed by anyone with the capacity to do it, was something that should be supported by the left – and why it was categorically different to the unilateral invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and also of the Balkans and Kosovo adventures.

To recap briefly: if you share the cause of a people’s revolution, and express solidarity with them, then a request for support from a legitimite leadership, puts the question of how you should relate to your own state (and its military) in a different light.

The request immediately reshapes reality, because it puts upon you a question that you must answer – will I help in the manner requested of me (in this instance, by campaigning for an NFZ and arms supplies), or will I refuse the request?

There is no such thing as a non-response, in this case. To say ‘this demands further study’ is an answer – and the answer is no. To be silent, because the request throws your politics into contradiction is an answer – and the answer is no.

To prevaricate about the motives, intentions and composition of the leadership – once its leadership role is reasonably established – as a way of deferring a decision, is to answer, and the answer is no. To make an independent strategic assessment of the request and decide that it’s wanting, is an answer and the answer is no.

Each ‘no’ is a refusal of solidarity, a breach of it. There may well be no other choice. The request may be for action that is utterly futile, vengeful, excessively bloody or demanding too much of a sacrifice. But if the request is legitimately made, of a legitimate tpye and is not onerous, then the continued expression of solidarity demands that you act on it.

Solidarity is an activity, not a passive condition. You can’t, as John Passant, suggested ‘side’ with the Libyan revolutionaries, like it’s a Swans match, and call that solidarity. That is mere spectatorship – worse, it’s a way of getting a mild political buzz off their struggle, whilst refusing to help them.

For those that we seem to be calling the anti-imperialist left, most requests for support from western governments can be correctly rejected – because they’re either counter-revolutions, coups, or, KLA style, reverse-engineered revolutions, created as a way of gaining great power support. You have absolutely no obligation to start or make someone’s revolution for them – quite the opposite.

A group has to make the initial positive move, to create the situation which produces leadership, and then the request. Through the Cold War, genuine revolutions by and large called on the USSR, Cuba or others for support, which did not put Western left groups on the spot.

Now however, an utter contradiction has emerged between solidarity and anti-imperialism – what is unquestionably a revolution is asking for ‘imperial’ support.

To avoiding dealing with this contradiction, the anti-imperialist (AI hereafter) left, has taken three strategies: 1) giving laughably false assessments of the rebels’ military situation, and an Orwellian account of the revolution being impeded by the West, 2) latching onto minor groups opposed to any form of external involvement, and 3) obscuring the fact that any request has been made, and labelling it – as does the Right – ‘intervention’.

No-one seems to be doing 1) anymore. 2) seems to me, in this case, a form of prevarication. Though there would be other cases where the leadership is in doubt, that’s not the case here. In a reply to the previous post Richard Seymour, of the Lenin’s Tomb blog, quoted some analysis of National Transition Council as being a group of opportunists and elites, without a real council structure. Well, if it was a wholly duplicitous group, that would be relevant.

And if the revolution was better entrenched, there would be more time to make a considered choice. But the nature of the military emergency was such that a decision – to be meaningful – had to be made. In such cases, you either support a group with a chance of winning this thing, or you’re honest about a refusal of solidarity. The composition of it, in terms of individual backgrounds, is irrelevant. ‘Elite’ describes the leadership of the ANC, the Bolsheviks and the UK SWP for a fair slew of its life. At some point, it is quibbling to provide cover for indecision.

By simply refusing to recognise the difference between a request for support and unilateral intervention, the contradiction between anti-imperialism and real solidarity is covered over. The judgement of the Western AI left is substituted for the revolutionary leadership, and it can be treated as if no request has been made, and there is nothing to answer.

This is the tenor of Jacinda Woodhead’s post on Overland. Woodhead calls any potential involvement ‘intervention’, and then lists the downside of involvement – imperial governments are not benevolent, they have interests, it always ends in disaster and mass death etc etc.

The alleged inevitable result of military involvement can be disputed but let that pass + they key point is that this isn’t your assessment and decision to make. This is the Libyan people’s revolution, and it’s up to them to decide what risk they will take. You’re being asked to act through solidarity, it’s not a job-share offer. There are only two questions that matter: 1) do you believe that the request for support, solidarity and assistance is coming from a legitimate leadership group, and if you do 2) will you show solidarity and actively campaign for what they want, or will you go with an absolute anti-imperialist line, and refuse solidarity? In some cases the latter is a legitimate and necessary choice. I don’t think it is in this one. But let’s be clear about the choice that’s being made, and not patronisingly substitute our own judgement for that of an actual revolution, through recourse to boilerplate anti-imperialism.

Indeed, Tad Tiedze gets to this point in a comment on my earlier piece. While also avoiding actually facing the distinction between a request, and a unilateral intervention, and substituting his own judgements for that of the revolution, he at least notes a consistent strategy:

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 “

Which would be an effective manifestation of a choice of anti-imperialism over revolutionary solidarity. Now that both Bob Brown and Adam Bandt have actively come out in favour of an NFZ, I would urge Tiedze to organise such a demonstration, and sharpen the debate – and also to see who would, and wouldn’t turn up. (although Tiedze’s commitment seems passive – he’d turn up to such an event, but not actually organise it).

Once you understand that the choice is between revolutionary solidarity and anti-imperialism (and it should be noted that I’m using this as a convenient phrase for a reasonably defined political movement; I don’t really accept the conventional and archaic definitions of ‘imperialism’ connected with it), the other questions become secondary.

Does such revolutionary support make for messy politics? Hell yeah – and there is a good political argument for having a simple anti-imperialist line. But if you believe a radical opportunity trumps a received theory, you accept the risk of terrible screw-ups. Could it be used as a call for further involvement, on the ground? It already is. But the solidaristic position is clear – the transitional council wanted arms and an NFZ, not boots on the ground, and that’s an easy line to cleave to. You just have to be politically energetic to do it. Could it end up with a worse situation than before? Absolutely. But if there wasn’t that risk, there wouldn’t be a revolutionary moment at all.

One of the most forceful statements of the anti-NFZ position is from my sometime editor Mick Hume in Spiked – but what is noticeable about is that, from a website whose insistent message has been not to live by the precautionary principle, the arguments against supporting the request of the revolutionary leadership are all couched in terms of worst-case scenarios, stretching back into the colonial era. It is by far the most textbook Marxist analysis of a world situation that has appeared on the site for a long time – undercut somewhat by the site’s determination to put as much distance as possible between itself and deterministic Marxist accounts over the last decade.

These latter points go to a division that lies beneath the question of involvement vs non-involvement, and anti-imperialism vs solidarity – and to a fundamental question about the relationship between theory and events, ultimately between knowing and being. This seems to me to go to the heart of a revolutionary politics – prior to even the most searching and thorough theoretical assessment of a situation, has to be a commitment to audacity, to the virtue of being able to put everything up for grabs in a single gamble – your own consistency not least among them.

Audacity is the capacity to make a single key act that makes radical change and victory possible. It is paired with krisis – in its original meaning, the moment at which something is either going to succeed or fail, a body to live or die. Audacity is quite different to initiative, courage, indiscipline, inconsistency, and the like. It is to recognise that a moment has presented itself which has the possibility to body forth a vast amount of radical change. Audacity is to say that there is ultimately a real, and that it sometimes erupts into an ideologically dominated existence. The Libyan revolution is such a moment. It is not merely an attempt to knock off a dictator who sits atop a pre-existing society – Gaddafi has created modern Libyan society. The apparatus is utterly dysfunctional, but it was is being rebelled against. As often happens, elements of ideology in the imposed order have inspired a genuine form of them in the uprising.

Gaddafi spent so long talking about the ‘state of the masses’, that the revolution that rose up against his travesty of it has taken on its form. It’s clear that the revolution is not dominated by Islamism, pan-Arabism, bourgeois liberalism, etc, though all those elements contend within. The Libyan revolution is a new historical development, emerging out of events – such as the Egyptian protests, which deposed a dictator who sat atop the army – which had nothing of its scope. It is, or has been, a revolution of the masses. Its rapid victory, with an early, relatively minimal assistance from an NFZ – including an air-strike against anti-aircraft placements – would have had incalculable effects, with the popular victory uppermost, not the support it received.

But of course that support would have had to happen early and quickly. Time was of the essence, and audacity is fundamentally related to time. As the man said, ‘nothing happens for decades, and then decades happen in weeks’. At Lenin’s Tomb, Seymour notes that calls for intervention always focus on urgency. Well, so they do but that doesn’t discredit urgency per se – which is the essence of a revolutionary moment.

There was a hinge point where the revolution could have been helped decisively, and in which a judgement about the politics of doing that and the legitimacy of who was asking for that had to be made immediately – unless one was so automatically opposed to any reflection on the situation that the answer was pro-forma. The idea that the legitimacy of a leadership group can be examined at leisure, and no leap of judgement made, seems like a rejection of the basic radical impulse, in favour of what is done during down-time – slow study and reflection. If urgency isn’t a radical virtue, what is?

This of course is what the internationalist/anti-imperialist/far-left was constituted for – as a continuation of the Bolshevik spirit after Stalinism had taken full and final hold. The prospect of decisive revolutionary moments at rare times, demanded a patience and discipline in other respects, a refusal to be drawn into politics-as-is. I’ll develop this further in the following ‘extra scenes’ post, but the position has become characteristic of the ‘far left’. Indeed as other groups, such as the Maoists, became either more improvisatory or opportunistic depending on your viewpoint, the role of the far left as the group that is never tactical about imperialism was strengthened. But as the decades waxed and waned, power relations, the economy, identity, nature of class have changed substantially (at least on surface, even if one believes that the base is still chugging away beneath).

A transformed world has thrown up a situation like Libya, the self-understanding, identity and projection of whose people fits into class analysis only by jamming it in with a shoehorn and chopping off the bits outhanging. With populations substantially under 30, for whom the Cold war is history, much less Idris, Nasser, Mussolini, in a petro-state which is kept poor by local torpor and Gaddafi’s failed schemes, rather than capitalist exploitation, the analysis of imperialism has little value for many. Gaddafi was drawn into the western orbit and feted – and the notion that relatively minimal European support for a revolution would ‘taint’ it seems to have little play.

The rigid anti-imperialist discourse has delivered the AI left to a point where they must turn their backs on the most genuine Revolution that has come their way for a while. They can find groups within it who are definitely opposed to any form of western involvement – but the leadership, and, it would seem, most of the people fighting as a mass, want the NFZ and arms. I’m aware of the way in which journalists can find the people they want to speak, but the sheer number, for every media outlet (of every conceivable political position) is simply too great to ignore.

The contradiction has left the AI left with no other position but passivity. However much they reject it, that is where they’re at. A group of white people who wear keffiyahs so often they may as well have them surgically attached, can’t find anything to do that would actually profess internationalism. I admire the personal qualities of many of the people who devote(d) themselves to this sort of politics, their tenacity, acuity and hard work, but it is plain to see that they’re in a terrible bind.

Woodhead’s piece on Overland notes that the issue has opened a fissure between different groups on the left. It has, but the more important thing is that it’s opened one within the AI left too – and everyone knows it. Much of that is informal, because many don’t want to speak about what is really a crisis point in the movement’s 70 year history. Such groups have been declining for some time now – especially the SWP in the UK, which, compared to its one-time power, has virtually collapsed (leaving it unable to take much advantage of the current anti-cuts campaign, for example).

Indeed they appear to be hollowed out, composed very largely of leadership veterans too old to do anything else, and young people attracted to the clear line and undoubted purposefulness of organised action. The relatively low numbers of people between their late twenties and mid-forties suggest a movement that people are not willing to commit the marrow of their life to. They voted, as the man said, with their feet.

The usual characterisation of the non-Trotskyist left (yeah, i’m using a few different terms) who nevertheless see themselves as radical, is that they (we) are reformist rather than revolutionary. But Libya appears to be the point at which that cannot be read off a simple scale.

The Greens, for example, opposed both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and have supported a ‘no-fly zone’. As any right-wing blog will tell you, their ranks are now filled with radical leftists – but those from a different radical left strand to Trotskyism, one drawing on various alter-communist traditions.

Such traditions, which allow for a more critical and creative treatment of received categories of ‘imperialism’, ‘class’ and ‘intervention’ – and a greater focus on making radical change happen.

Contrary to the absolute judgements of the AI left, there are plenty of cases where drawing in imperial powers to help make a revolution meets with success – from the Bolsheviks’ intensive involvement with the Germans, then courting of the English, then the Germans again, before setting up a bunch of capitalist ‘zones’ with US capital in 1921-2, to the monarchist French involvement in the American revolution, Tito’s active involvement with the Allies in WW2, the Irish attempt to get French and German help in 1793 and 1914 respectively, Bose drawing on Japanese help to form the Indian National liberation army in the 1940s, and one could go on. Karl Liebknicht, whom Mick Hume cites approvingly as a model of turning the fight back to one’s own situation, ended murdered in a canal, while Lenin rode a German train to the St Petersburg station. Seems to be a lesson in that.

Barring miracles, the Libyan revolution is gone. So why does this matter so much? Because such a situation will come round again, requiring political action at home. Action of a similar type, of a different type, but in any case a creative and decisive political intervention. The notion that the non-Labour left can’t play a decisive role in what happens is nonsense. It should be obvious that the Right is so exhausted, demoralised and confused that the terrain is clearer. It should be obvious that decisive action can be taken, but that the far-left groups are increasingly unable to extract themselves from their contradictions – and from what has become a stultifying conservatism of thought, action and theorising. Having decided to be a left party (not their only way to be, but so they have decided), the Greens should now take the lead in such issues – faster, more decisively, more confidently.

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10 thoughts on “Libya and the anti-imperialist left 2 – ideology, audacity and politics

  1. MLF

    Guy, looking forward to your next, post-intervention installment. If you have the time and inclination, I’d be interested in your view, or even a general view, about the make-up of Libyan rebels, what post-intervention might look like with or without the big G, and how you think Americans at home feel about their government committing to action to protect anti-American Libyans who showed up in force in Iraq to fight just a few years ago.

    I also wonder if you think that committing and risking American, English and French lives to protect Libyans, some of whom would prefer those Americans, English and French to be dead, is about as honorable a demonstration of ‘Western’ values as you could hope to get.

  2. MLF

    There was a recurring rhythm to President Barack Obama’s speech about the no-fly zone over Libya. But it wasn’t a drum beat of war – it was a chorus about consensus, an insistence on internationalism.

    Sure, there was an ultimatum, the threat of military action. Those are the headlines. And there was an explanation why America might have to fight.

    Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilised, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.
    But the subtext is more important. Read the last sentence in that quotation again. In a speech of just over three pages he repeats this point. Not once:

    The US has worked with our allies and partners to shape a strong international response.
    Not twice:

    The US is prepared to act as part of an international coalition. American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone.
    Not three times:

    It is not an action that we will pursue alone. Indeed, our British and French allies, and members of the Arab League, have already committed to take a leadership role.
    But more:

    So I have taken this decision with the confidence that action is necessary, and that we will not be acting alone.
    So you might have gathered, the US is not going it alone. Throughout his declaration Mr Obama makes it clear how different this is to the Iraq war. Not only the international consensus, but the limits on action.

    I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The US is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.
    The limits he sets out are not just practical, they are limits to ambitions and objectives.

    I want to be clear: The change in the region will not and cannot be imposed by the US or any foreign power; ultimately, it will be driven by the people of the Arab World. It is their right and their responsibility to determine their own destiny.
    Mr Obama is only a reluctant convert to action, and you could argue he’s merely disguising his feet-dragging with noble rhetoric about the international community. It’s certainly noticeable that he didn’t mention the killings in Yemen (although he earlier issued a statement condemning them) or the unrest in Bahrain, stiffer tests of American power and resolve.

    But I think we are seeing something new. He is using a crisis thrust upon him to set out an Obama doctrine of sorts, to make a statement about America’s relationship with the world. While he is in charge, he is saying, America will not go it alone, will set limits on what it does, and won’t impose its will. Some will not like this,
    and the world will find it difficult to adapt to a president who almost seems determined to lead from behind.

    The Obama doctrine is a tightrope walk: Acting, but within limits, leading only as a first among equals.


  3. MLF

    I am neither AI left, nor right, but I call it intervention – because intervention is what it is.

    I see that Guy has finally put some words to paper about when ‘we’ should intervene – when the people start a revolution and they ask for it. That’s all good Guy, as long as we are clear that these are the rules you will be judging by, whether the next revolution be in Iran, Afg, China, New Zealand or Australia. The world is after all a crazy place.

    For the record, again, I’m pro-intervention. The bar I have is humanitarian need. If it exists, those who can help should. Which obviously sets us all up for more trouble than even Guy’s bar.

  4. Daniel

    Interesting article, thanks.

  5. dudette

    My goodness, what a rambling piece.

    Even the Unabomber’s manifesto would have been preferable to trudge through.

  6. sophist75

    Excellent points, Guy. And I think the sophistication of your critique has hit a nerve, as evidenced by the acerbic tone of the responses you have elicited from Tad and Dick Seymour – although not exactly unusual for those two. (E.g. see Dick’s rants against dissenters on his own “Lenin’s Tomb,” although more recently he has taken to simply censoring contrary opinions.)

    It is nothing short of amazing to see these people, who have made it their life’s work to implicate “the West” (that neo-liberal, imperialist blob) in every calamity that has befallen modernity, here arguing that the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Libyans about to face extinction at the hands of an unhinged dictator are not actually worth defending because they don’t yet meet the criterion of being genuine victims of Western imperialism. Perhaps this attitude shouldn’t be that surprising: on the hierarchy of victims, those who died as a result of orders from a Gadaffi or Mugabe or Milošević barely register, while those innocents killed by meddling Americans or Europeans or Israelis serve as a constant reminder of the injustice of the global system. As indeed all such victims should. But why draw this distinction?

    As you pointed out in part one, there is something almost colonialist and bourgeois in the calculations which the AI left bring to bear on this issue. Their calculus is calibrated to meeting the ideologically pure objective of progress toward a socialist international order (which involves “breaking a few eggs” and all of that); so to compromise their principles over the trifling matter of human life is to risk estrangement from the cause. And if that happened, who would read their blogs?

  7. michael l

    It is a shame so many had to die and so many now have to live in the most repressive regime on the African continent, but dammit, my conspiracy theories about liberal democracy and the West are just too important to let go.

  8. michael l

    I can’t wait for the eventual victim blaming. If only the revolution was more anti-imperialist, more non-violent, had read more journal articles, it would have succeeded.

  9. calyptorhynchus

    I agree, I think it’s complete cowardice on the part of western powers not to intervene. You don’t stand by when people are asking for your help and being killed in front of you (and you have the means to help them).

    The bit about getting bogged down, an extended occupation &c &c is easy too. Go in, destroy Gaddafi and leave immediately.

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