[Marxism] Renfrey Clarke on Libya
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 13 01:59:08 MST 2014
This is a reply to Fred Feldman on the Green Left mailing list. For
newcomers to Marxmail, Fred was a key leader of the SWP in the 60s who
was expelled about 10 years or so ago for some petty offense. He was on
Marxmail for several years but had to be removed for essentially
breaking a primary rule of his mailing list, namely not to post
obsessively about a single topic. In his case, it boiled down to
repeating the talking points of the ANSWER coalition, the Iranian,
Russian, Cuban and Venezuelan press, etc. Just above Renfrey's post that
I found most useful, there is a much briefer one by me from Facebook
addressing the "failed state" narrative that a FB friend raised.
Libya's problems can be traced to living under a dictatorship for 42
years that made "civil society" and ordinary politics impossible. The
centripetal tendencies could have been expected. Libya was basically run
as a tribal/capitalist enterprise in which enormous resentment grew
against the state. If you lived in Benghazi and wanted to get a
passport, you had to travel to Tripoli, etc. No effort was made to
create a true national identity. Despite Qaddafi's rhetoric about Libyan
socialism, he favored his own tribe and staffed the top bureaucracies
with family and tribal cronies. The rebellion was not made by something
like the NLF in Vietnam. It was basically an inchoate spontaneous armed
uprising that lacked a program, ideology, etc. The task facing Libyans
is to create national unity on the basis of mutual respect but there is
a large Islamist and Qaddafist presence that is conspiring to destroy
that possibility. It is a miracle that things are not even worse.
Fred's confusions here are profound. If I can make a general
observation, the problem is that he doesn't base his characterisations
on Marxist criteria or Marxist analytical methods. There's no attempt
made to define the class forces at play in Libya, to describe their
strengths and weaknesses, or to suggest how they interact in the
specific national setting. Instead, categories such as "breakdown" and
"disintegration" are thrown about indiscriminately, in the emotive
fashion of liberal journalism.
Meanwhile, the 2011 "revolution" (Fred's inverted commas) is referred to
with self-righteous scorn. The derision is out of place, since what
occurred in Libya in 2011 was a perfectly genuine revolution. The locus
of power within Libyan society shifted dramatically. The old state
apparatus was comprehensively destroyed, something that certainly didn't
occur in Egypt or Tunisia. It's true that power in Libya didn't shift
from one class to another, but Marxists still speak of revolution in
cases where massive social upheavals stop short of this fundamental
displacement in the source of authority.
Libya's revolution may not have been thoroughgoing in the class sense,
but it was undoubtedly popular. Don't take my word for this: go back to
the reports from February 2011, and identify the Libyan population
centres where Gaddafi's power held up during the initial revolt. The
list is strikingly small, and most of the towns weren't particularly
important. The conclusion follows irresistibly: a large majority of the
Libyan population, and an astonishingly broad range of social sectors,
were sick of Gaddafi and were prepared to fight to get rid of him.
In the absence of an organised, class-conscious proletariat, power in
this revolution could have been expected to fall to the anti-Gaddafi
bourgeoisie. One thing we know about developing-world bourgeoisies in
the imperialist epoch is that they tend to be weak and divided,
subservient to imperialism, and unconfident of their chances in class
conflict with the masses of workers and poor.
This was certainly the case in Libya. Under Gaddafi the key sectors of
the Libyan economy were largely state-owned, with the result that the
capitalists were a relatively small class and not particularly wealthy.
With politics shut down under the dictatorship, few members of the
bourgeoisie possessed more than rudimentary political skills.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi had ruled by playing off commercial, regional, tribal
and ethnic elites against one another, guaranteeing that the bourgeoisie
would be disunited.
A further important element was the fact that no individual or faction
within the Libyan bourgeoisie ever developed a strong popular following
during the struggle against the dictator. The peak body of the
anti-Gaddafi elites, the National Transitional Council, issued
declarations and negotiated with NATO. But the popularly-based militias
chose their own leaders, and made decisions for themselves.
That adds up to a situation in which the Libyan bourgeoisie, as the
presumptive inheritors of power, were strikingly incapable of exercising
it. At the same time, the political and military constraints on
imperialism (for one thing, the fact that the Obama administration
didn't want a third ground war in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan)
meant that an important boots-on-the-ground imperialist military
presence in Libya remained unlikely.
The result, after three years, is today's Libyan mess (in many ways,
better understood as a series of local mini-messes). The bourgeoisie and
its various allies have proven unable to create a coherent state with a
monopoly on the means of coercion. The masses have access to arms, and
experience of revolutionary struggle, but lack the class consciousness
and political leadership to bid for power in their own right. The
imperialists sense that large-scale direct intervention at this point
would be costly and probably counter-productive.
So how are we Marxists to respond to this? One of the more useless and
destructive approaches we could take is to confine ourselves to
bemoaning, in abstract and moralist fashion, the inability of a
pro-imperialist bourgeois government to exercise meaningful control over
the whole national territory, provide effective security to the
population, guarantee democratic rights, construct institutions of rule
recognised by the population as legitimate, etc., etc.
None of these failures of Libya's government should surprise us in the
least. Pro-imperialist rulers in developing countries are notoriously
incapable of doing these things! That's among the fundamental
observations made by Marxist-Leninists with regard to the imperialist
epoch. It reflects the incapacity of semi-colonial bourgeoisies in our
period to carry out the historical tasks performed by the capitalists of
Western Europe and North America during earlier stages of capitalism's
Does the fact that the Libyan bourgeoise is failing on this score mean
that the Libyan masses were wrong to make a revolution against Gaddafi,
given that power was likely then to fall to a weak, squabbling array of
anti-Gaddafi elites? That's pretty much an argument against the masses
overthrowing tyrants anywhere in the developing world, anytime. It's not
a position I care to embrace.
Does it, perhaps, mean the Libyan fighters were rendered reactionary by
the fact that NATO, for reasons of its own, chose to bomb Gaddafi's
forces and allow the rebellion to survive? Sarkozy and Cameron don't
possess such powers that they could negate the progressive character of
the Libyan revolt simply with a burst from their prime-ministerial
synapses. The mass uprising against Gaddafi was rooted deeply in the
processes of Libyan society. No arbitrary decision by NATO leaders could
change the revolt's essential nature.
Or, are we to conclude that for imperialists to bomb a developing
country was necessarily and irreducibly reactionary, and that Marxists
should have demanded that the bombing end forthwith, even at the stage
when the almost inevitable result would have been the smashing of a
This is one of those points where left politics gets difficult, where
pre-packaged judgments just won't do, and where you're compelled to
research the situation, analyse it, and to choose between more-or-less
As I've indicated, NATO in March 2011 operated under tight political
constraints, and the prospect of its bombing campaign being
qualitatively escalated - notably, into a significant ground occupation
- was remote. In these circumstances, whether the left should have
called for an end to the bombing of Gaddafi's forces depended on the
extent to which the bombing was likely to legitimise, and to crucially
expedite, imperialist military action in developing countries in general.
My estimate in 2011 was that the NATO bombing wouldn't have a major or
crucial impact of this kind, and this assessment seems to me to have
been borne out. The French have continued to meddle in Chad, but they
didn't need a political bounce from their exploits in Libya in order to
do that; their actions in Chad conform to a pattern of armed
intervention in sub-Saharan Africa that has persisted throughout the
nominal independence of that region. Far more importantly, NATO hasn't
been fortified by its Libyan intervention to the point where it's felt
able to go after Syria.
Meanwhile, who says there haven't been democratic gains in Libya? Anyone
who expected a fully-functional bourgeois democracy to spring from the
manoeuvrings of the post-Gaddafi elites was very foolish indeed. But the
accomplishment of the revolution was that it blew open a very
considerable democratic space, in which popular and civil-society
organisations have since been able to organise, discuss and mount
propaganda. Even if that space had now closed - and it hasn't - making
the revolution against Gaddafi would still have been worthwhile, simply
for the political experience gained by the masses during the revolt and
in the subsequent period.
Crucially for Marxists, the democratic space in Libya has provided an
opportunity for workers to organise trade unions and conduct industrial
struggles. The labour scene in Libya receives little reporting in
English (the Libya Herald, despite its general professionalism, is still
a bourgeois journal), but class combat in the country bubbles along.
Workers enjoy a more-or-less unfettered ability to use the strike
weapon, something their counterparts in Australia have long since lost.
In the course of their struggles, Libyan workers are as liable as
workers anywhere to conclude that the source of their problems lies in
the capitalist system itself.
That transformation of consciousness represents the way forward for the
Libyan revolution - and the revolution, when you think about it, has
only just begun. The semi-colonial bourgeoisie can't provide most of the
things that make life bearable for workers and the poor. The historic
task of providing all this must therefore pass to the masses, under the
leadership of a new force, the revolutionary proletariat.
Sound familiar? It should do. I first encountered this line of argument
in the Basic Marxism classes I attended more than forty ago. It's
astonishing how many self-proclaimed Marxists forget these elementary
propositions, when confronted with the complexities of an actual struggle.
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