[Marxism] Renfrey Clarke on Libya

Louis Proyect 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.

Feldman's post: 

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 
popular insurgency?

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 
unpalatable options.

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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