Libya: Nato’s Libya intervention debated

An exchange on how to support the genuine forces in the uprising in Libya

Letter, referring to "The ‘no-fly zone’ and the Left", first published in Socialism Today

Dear Peter,

I have long been an admirer of the articles and books of Peter Taaffe. They are written in a way that makes complex events understandable to me. However, having just read the most recent article in Socialism Today on Libya (Libya: The No-Fly Zone and the Left, No.148, May 2011), I must differ. I agree with a lot of the article. However, I agree with most of those rebels in Misrata who, in a recent TV interview, called for more airstrikes to take out Gadaffi’s tanks.

These were ordinary working-class men and women who make up the rebels in Misrata who were saying this. These brave men and women are fighting with their backs to the sea surrounded by Gadaffi’s troops who have more resources. Nobody appears to be arming and training the rebels. They don’t want foreign troops in their land, but they want air strikes and soon, as the city is being bombarded by Gadaffi’s tanks.

Of course, from the West’s point of view, they may be happy to see Misrata fall and the rebels retreat. The country would then be divided in half with the east keeping the oil – just what the Western powers would like, although they don’t say that in public. Gadaffi would take bloody revenge on Misrata once it had fallen.

So I support the Misrata rebels’ call for air strikes. By saying this, does that mean I support imperialist intervention? No, I don’t think so. It’s not the same thing in my view. If I was in Misrata, I would be calling for the planes to knock out the tanks.

Chris Fernandez


Peter Taaffe responds

The comments by Chris are very welcome. It is important that our readers inform us regularly about their views on the content of articles. We welcome favourable comments but also points where there are differences. Our intention is to inform the workers’ movement through our analysis, and hopefully raise the political level of understanding of our readers. This can be furthered if we have a genuine dialogue with workers on such serious issues as Libya.

Chris is not alone in wanting to see action taken in defence of the rebels in Libya. And, initially, we were fully in favour of seeking to assist the uprising when it was a genuine revolution with the workers dominating through elected committees, not just with food but with weapons and the means of resisting the murderous onslaught of Gadaffi’s troops.

The best way to do this is through the independent class action of the international workers’ movement, beginning in those countries in the region that have been touched by the flames of revolution. Unfortunately, such an appeal has not been forthcoming from the rebels. Instead, they have appealed to the imperialist powers to assist them through airstrikes. This became more pronounced as the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois forces succeeded in elbowing the workers aside.

If weapons were supplied to assist a genuine mass rebellion, even if they were supplied by the imperialist powers – on the precondition that there were no strings attached – we would not stand in the way of this. It was Leon Trotsky who pointed out: “In 90 cases out of 100 the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie”. But even in a case like this, he added that Marxism “must each time orient itself independently… arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the working class”. (Learn to Think – A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists, May 1938)

However, imperialism has no intention of doing this, partly because it is not sure that the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaders who presently dominate the ranks of the rebels will be able to control the situation – to imperialism’s benefit – after the removal of Gadaffi. In other words, it is not sure it could control the revolution. This is the fundamental concern throughout the region – hence the relative silence and inaction on massacres in Bahrain and repression in Syria, and the encouragement of sectarian forces in Egypt, etc.

In desperation, the besieged rebels in Misrata and Benghazi look for help from outside. There is support, therefore, for airstrikes in these towns and internationally. But we cannot go along with this, precisely because it will not assist the interests of the Libyan masses, the North African and Arab revolution, or the working class internationally.

The interim government is now dominated by bourgeois forces, with key positions held by former Gadaffi ministers. This is why the Financial Times reported: “A coalition of mostly Western and Arab countries supporting Libya’s rebels has agreed to set up a special non-military fund with pledges of several hundred million dollars, while calling for patience after seven weeks of Nato-led bombing that have failed to oust Muammer Gaddafi’s regime”. (6 May) There would be no question of them acting in this fashion if the rebellion in the east was dominated by mass democratic committees.

Also, the airstrikes are a blunt instrument which have not stopped Gadaffi’s troops and have inflicted terrible ‘collateral’ damage on the rebels themselves. There is the additional factor that such methods could actually strengthen support for Gadaffi which is still obviously there in the west of the country. Only a class appeal holds out the possibility of being completely successful in splitting Gadaffi’s ranks and mobilising opposition in Tripoli. Remember, the workers in Benghazi have already defeated Gadaffi’s forces in an uprising. An indiscriminate air war has as little chance of succeeding in Libya as in Afghanistan, where it has proved to be completely counter-productive; the cowardly use of US drones has resulted in the massacre of the innocent as well as ‘guilty’ Taliban fighters.

I do not think it is correct to say that ‘the West’ will be happy to see the fall of Misrata. It wants to see the overthrow of Gadaffi now, even though it accommodated to him previously. The West would even like to intervene decisively to guarantee victory to the rebels – if it had the land forces and was not constrained by fears of mission creep. It could not do this in the first instance, hence the airstrikes. There are some on the left who argued that imperialism wished to remain at the level of a military ‘no-fly zone’. We wrote that they wish to “neatly separate support for action of this character from the wider perspectives of the powers that take such action”. They argued that “the UN, with Britain and France as its instruments, has set very limited objectives in Libya”.

After our article appeared, Obama, Cameron, Hague and Sarkozy all indicated that they were working for the overthrow of Gadaffi. Hague announced the sending of British ‘advisers’ – in reality, the SAS – to the east of Libya. This is the way that US intervention in the Vietnam war started. Libya will not be a repeat of the Vietnam war but the airstrikes are just the beginning of imperialist encroachment, the aim of which is to derail a revolution from below similar to those that have unfolded in the Middle East and North Africa.

It is clear that Chris and many others who share his views do not intend “to support imperialist intervention”. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions! Airstrikes by foreign imperialist powers are military interventions. The rebels are only so much small change in the calculations of imperialism. They are much more interested in Libya’s oil reserves and, more importantly, in holding back and derailing the wider revolution in the region. It is for this reason that we opposed the no-fly zone from the start.

But there is an additional vital issue: the consciousness of the Libyan masses. Calling for ‘help’ from outside – moreover, from the class enemy – strengthens Gadaffi’s calls to defend the country from imperialism. It lowers the consciousness of the working class, weakening its ability to struggle independently. In Palestine, in the occupied territories at least, the masses were mostly passive as they awaited liberation through the ‘avenging angel’ of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its military struggle launched from outside the country. Only when the PLO was defeated and evicted from Lebanon was the ground prepared for the Palestinian masses to act independently in the occupied territories through the intifadas.

The marvellous revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia smashed the idea that the masses of the Middle East and North Africa could be liberated only through outside intervention – the argument imperialism used in relation to Iraq. Surreptitiously, they are attempting to resurrect this doctrine in relation to Libya, unfortunately with the assistance of ultra-left organisations which invariably adopt an opportunistic position, particularly on crucial issues such as war.

It would be mistaken, therefore, for us to give any support whatsoever to imperialist intervention in the form of no-fly zones – for the reasons explained above and in the original article.

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May 2011