Libya: The ‘no-fly zone’, the Left and the ‘Third Camp’

How to support the genuine forces in the uprising in Libya? – A Second Reply to the AWL

Over the last weeks an exchange and debate developed on how to support the genuine forces in the uprising in Libya and how to deal with the imperialist intervention. Here we publish a further reply by Peter Taaffe on a statement of the AWL (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty), a small group in Britain, presenting itself in the tradition of Trotskyism. See also:

In the words of the great ancient Greeks: "The mountain has laboured and brought forth a mouse." Such is our response to Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), who has eventually replied to our criticism of their support for imperialism’s “no-fly zone" in Libya (see ‘Socialism Today’ April 2011). In this case, however, the "mountain" has merely brought forth a flea!

A lengthy document on the website of this organisation does not answer any of our arguments and criticisms of their position on the current situation in Libya. Instead, we are served up a series of falsehoods about the alleged political positions of the Socialist Party on this and many other issues without any attempt to seriously answer our criticism. Just take the title of their reply: “Peter Taaffe equates Libya’s rebels with Nicaraguan contras”. Yet nothing of the kind is expressed in my article! What we did say was: "When it has been unable to intervene directly, because of domestic opposition for instance, imperialism has not hesitated to use mercenaries to overthrow a regime it did not favour or to stymie a revolution. Such was the policy of Ronald Reagan’s administration in using hired thugs, the Contras, against the Nicaraguan revolution." The media are now reporting that “ground troops” are intervening in Libya, in all probability the same kind of ‘security services’ – private mercenaries to give them their right name – as the US used in Iraq.

Clearly, our mention of the Contras was directed not against the rebels in Libya but to warn about the use of pro-imperialist outside forces, including the deployment of SAS "ground troops"; this had been actually reported early on in the Daily Mirror. We did not discount that imperialism could proceed beyond the no-fly zone and bombing, out of frustration and desperation, if Gadaffi still clung to power. This created the possibility of a direct intervention, including the use of "ground troops", but in the disguised form as "advisers". We now read in the Independent (31 May 2011): “Pressure has been mounting on the Libyan leader after NATO stepped up its bombing campaign and suggested that a "small ground force" might be deployed. Pictures broadcast yesterday by Al Jazeera appeared to show foreign fighters assisting rebels on the ground near the besieged city of Misrata.” Of course, like the AWL, “Western politicians have insisted they will not deploy ground troops in support of the air strikes.”

The tentative anticipation of what could happen has been borne out in the past few weeks. Yet the AWL, particularly through its spokesperson Sean Matgamna in his role as an attorney for imperialist intervention, argued in the article I criticised that imperialism was unlikely to proceed beyond the bombing campaign. The announcement of the deployment of Apache helicopters, the supply of weapons and the increased use of "advisers", admitted by the spokespersons of imperialism, have completely borne out what we said. Only those who dishonestly distort the arguments of opponents could assert that we identify the rebels en bloc with the Contras in Nicaragua.

The same fantastical assertions are made about the Socialist Party’s alleged identification of the Gadaffi regime with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In this way, the AWL hopes to create the impression that we see something "socialist" in the Gadaffi regime. We do not argue, nor have we ever argued, that this was the case, even when the majority of the productive forces in Libya – mostly the oil resources – were ‘nationalised’. We opposed the dictatorial regime of Gadaffi, supported the uprising in Benghazi but, unlike the AWL, we never gave the slightest support to Gadaffi’s former ‘friends’ – imperialism – to overthrow him and his regime through outside military intervention, which is what the no-fly zone and the systematic bombing of Libya amounts to.

The Balkans and Iraq

‘Doubting’ Thomas indignantly objects: "Taaffe misrepresents our opinion, saying that we ‘justify’ and ‘support’ ‘imperialist intervention’. The difference between not wanting to obstruct or stop the NATO action, and supporting it, is perhaps subtle, and may seem evasive." This is pure sophistry! It is moreover not "subtle" and is "evasive". When you give political support to an action of imperialism, like the specific no-fly zone in Libya, you take responsibility for subsequent events. There is – or rather was – at the outset of the conflict, widespread support for the no-fly zone among significant sections of the population in Britain, in Europe and elsewhere. The Socialist Party has debated this issue with some workers who have taken such a position. We pointed out to them support for the no-fly zone is likely to lead – as in other cases such as in the Balkans conflict and in Iraq – to increased military measures directed by outside imperialist forces. The AWL argues, and Thomas repeats this in the later document, that imperialism would be unlikely to go any further than the no-fly zone and will indeed desperately try to extricate themselves from the conflict. This is clearly not the case, as the statements of Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy have demonstrated in the last few weeks. But even if you argue in the manner of the AWL that we should support the no-fly zone, but oppose further military measures, particularly the intervention of imperialist forces on the ground, this would cut no ice with the masses who provisionally supported the no-fly zone. They would argue, quite logically, that they wanted to help the ‘rebels’, which is what the no-fly zone represented; what then is your objection to further military intervention? Moreover wasn’t this the case in Kosovo/Kosova, where the AWL supported the Kosova Liberation Army?

In Iraq, the AWL refused to call for the withdrawal of imperialist troops. Why? Because as Matgamna argued in 2005: “A “precipitous” withdrawal would maximise the chances of destruction for the labour movement.” He further asserts: “What we refuse to do… is raise a “demand”, Troops Out Now, whose likely, calculable, practical consequences we do not want. Which may well bring on a catastrophe that will abort all the possibilities that the rising labour movement is opening for the working class of Iraq.” [The Iraqi labour movement comes first, Solidarity (AWL paper) 3/84, 17 November 2005.] This under an imperialist occupation that had seen the outlawing of trade unions like the oil workers union, which was an obstacle to the privatisation and foreign plunder of Iraq’s vast oil reserves.

Liberation of Paris 1944

In justification for their position on the no-fly zone, Thomas states the following in relation to an historical event, the entry of the wartime allies into Paris in 1944: “Take another example, from international politics this time in case Taaffe would argue that the issue of imperialism wipes out all such nuances. The political forerunners which AWL and SP have in common, the Trotskyists of the mid-1940s, did not support the British and American armies in World War Two… But they did not ‘absolutely oppose’ the entry of American and British-sponsored French forces into Paris in August 1944 to defeat and oust the Nazi occupiers on the back of a popular rising which had started a few days before. On the contrary, if the Americans had stopped their advance and camped outside Paris until, maybe, the Nazis had crushed the uprising – as Stalin’s army camped outside Warsaw from August 1944, letting the Nazis exterminate a popular rising before the Russian army finally entered to push out the Nazis – the Trotskyists would have denounced the Americans."

Thomas displays here a breathtaking lack of understanding of what actually took place in August 1944 in France. He also shows inadvertently that his and the AWL’s "third camp", is in reality a petty-bourgeois political position which denies or downplays the independent role of the working class in shaping its own destiny. Today, he directs the gaze of the Libyan masses towards relying on imperialist forces from the outside rather than their own strength in confronting and overthrowing Gadaffi. In France in 1944 he falsely ascribes to the Trotskyists at that time that they looked towards US and British forces to intervene on behalf of the working class. In reality, the August 1944 uprising in Paris took place while the Allied imperialist forces – including De Gaulle’s Free French – were 50 miles from Paris. They were rushed towards the city by US forces because of the fear of all the leaders of the capitalist armies of a new version of the Paris Commune with the working class taking power in the city and then spreading this example to the rest of France. There was no possibility of a repetition of the crushing of the Warsaw uprising because the masses themselves had already partially defeated the German forces in the city.

In fact, it was the working class and, increasingly, sections of the middle class who bore the brunt of the struggle and resistance against the Nazis, while most of the ‘elite’ were collaborators. The anti-capitalist mood was reflected in the programme of the Resistance, which demanded the takeover of the big firms and expropriation of all those who were collaborators. A clear revolutionary socialist approach would have won a majority for socialist change. However, the Communist Party fostered illusions in De Gaulle as a “saviour”.

"Frenzied petty bourgeois" and the "Third Camp"

Once more, the AWL, as with the original article by Sean Matgamna, who invoked Trotsky’s writings on the Balkans to support their position, which we answered, calls on Trotsky to justify its position. They write: "Workers’ Liberty, as regular readers will know, sometimes borrows a phrase from Leon Trotsky, Max Shachtman, and others to describe our politics as ‘Third Camp’." This attempted amalgam of Trotsky with Max Shachtman is completely false but is nevertheless very instructive of the real position of the AWL. It is true that Trotsky, in his article "Petty Bourgeois Democrats and Moralisers” (1938-39), did argue in relation to the "internecine conflicts" between different bourgeois formations – the ‘liberals’ and conservative right – that the working class should stand in a "third, independent sovereign camp of the proletariat". This we entirely subscribe to. But the very same Trotsky who at one time argued that the working class stands in the "third camp" against bourgeois formations specifically rejected the entirely different "third camp" conception when petty bourgeois trends, like Shachtman and his followers in the US, sought to use this to occupy an "intermediate" position on crucial questions affecting the working class. Such was the position of Shachtman’s supporters on the question of the defence of the nationalised property relations in the Soviet Union at that time which represented a crucial historical conquest of the working class, despite the one-party totalitarian regime of Stalinism.

But on the no-fly zone issue the AWL rejects our and Trotsky’s approach. The AWL attempts to cover up their adaptation to the policies of the ‘liberal’ bourgeois and the ‘democratic’ illusions which these sometimes generate amongst the petty bourgeois and amongst some workers. They have now adopted Shachtman’s position, characterising the Soviet Union in the past as "state capitalist". They are political grasshoppers who veer from one position to a diametrically opposed position later.

Like the "frenzied petty bourgeois", the supporters of Shachtman that Trotsky confronted in the ranks of the American Socialist Workers’ Party in 1939, Thomas uses sneers instead of arguments in dismissing the examples that we give of a trend at the beginning of the uprising towards independent working-class actions in Libya. He writes: "Taaffe’s evidence on the thinking of ‘the masses in Benghazi’ is ‘slogans on the walls [which] read, in English, “No to foreign intervention, the Libyans can do it themselves”.’ So ‘the masses in Benghazi’ conduct all their political affairs in English? So convenient!" The masses in the neo-colonial world cannot grasp or express themselves in "English" maintains this contemptuous ‘cultured’ representative of ‘Marxism’. Any acquaintance with the neo-colonial world – yes even with the "masses" or the most developed section of them – and you become aware that many can express themselves in English. This is partly a by-product of the 24-hour international media and the social media – even in countries without any historical connection through the ‘British Empire’ – where the use of English is widespread. Moreover, they specifically expressed themselves in English – even if the slogans were painted by petty-bourgeois leaders, as Thomas implies – in order that their message would be carried internationally, and particularly to warn those bourgeois who from the outset were contemplating some kind of intervention.

Incredibly, Thomas concedes that this slogan did appear – although he argues it was from “petty bourgeois and bourgeois leaders" rather than the masses! This actually strengthens our arguments and not his, if this was indeed the case. It shows that even petty-bourgeois leaders were opposed to western capitalist foreign intervention at the outset. He then argues: "After Qaddafi’s resistance proved stronger the leaders (and… ‘the masses’) changed their opinion." If this was the case, was it because the Libyan equivalents of the AWL, in despair, argued that by their own efforts – let alone independent working class action – they could not succeed and therefore liberation should be sought from outside forces? And if the AWL had been present on the ground they would have reinforced this.

The same facile, if not childish, arguments are deployed to dismiss the examples we gave from history of successful revolutionary working-class action which can be drawn on in order to instil into the Benghazi masses and those of Libya and the region as a whole that independent working-class action can succeed. We gave the example of Jose Buenaventura Durruti’s army of social liberation which marched in July 1936 from insurrectionary Barcelona and Catalonia to the gates of Madrid. There are profound differences, of course, between Spain in the 1930s and Libya today. But Durruti’s forces helped to defeat Franco’s fascist forces and saved the revolution at that stage. In Libya, the main hope of the revolution is obviously to assist the revolutionary forces from inside Tripoli to rise and overthrow Gadaffi themselves. The approach of a revolutionary army can sometimes act as a trigger for a rising. To achieve this means, firstly, to complete the revolution in Benghazi and the east through the independent power of the working class and then conduct a revolutionary offensive. But this is a book sealed with seven seals for the cynics of the AWL, for whom, like Henry Ford, history, it seems, is "bunk".

Northern Ireland 1969 – beginning of the Troubles

A similarly dismissive approach is adopted in relation to Northern Ireland in August 1969. Thomas writes: "The ‘united workers’ defence force’ [advanced by Militant at the time] was fantasy and evasion in Northern Ireland because if that force were to emerge and become a major, or the major, military power in Northern Ireland – as it would have to do, in order to be a ‘solution’ – then it would have to make political choices on the national and communal issues. To emerge, it would have to be sustained by a prior political unity of at least a decisive section of the Northern Ireland working class, Catholic and Protestant, around a common political programme. If that political unity had existed, then the communal semi-civil-war in the Troubles would never have started in the first place!"

Dante’s "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" at the entrance to hell is the mantra of the AWL. The AWL had no influence in Northern Ireland, especially in the workers’ movement, in 1969, nor subsequently as far as we know. Unless history has already provided all the necessary conditions of class unity, don’t try, abandon all hope in the working class is their approach. We had small forces but were not weighed down by the corrosive pessimism and fatalism of the AWL in relation to the potential of the working class.

We debated and discussed with workers and young people on both sides of the sectarian divide with not a little success particularly in Derry but also in the dialogues we had with left Republicans in Belfast. Despite what Thomas argues – which again is based on pure ignorance of the real situation – a potentially powerful workers’ movement did exist in Northern Ireland at this stage. In August 1969, there were terrible sectarian clashes on one side but on the other there were examples of working class unity or the potential for such, in the peace committee for instance which existed in East Belfast and elsewhere in the city. The trade union movement, in particular through the shop stewards, did try and intervene to prevent sectarian clashes spilling over into the workplace. Moreover, in Derry the Young Socialists and the Northern Ireland Labour Party did seek – with some success – to bridge the sectarian divide. The Northern Ireland Labour Party, despite its political weaknesses, successfully attracted both Catholic and Protestant workers, receiving about 100,000 votes in the 1970 general election. We, that is Militant, and myself in particular, along with Ted Grant and others, did participate in discussions and debates with excellent working-class fighters and socialists who had emerged in Northern Ireland during the course of the struggle.

However, this successful intervention would not have been possible if we had adopted the position of the AWL that everything is set in stone, because by implication sectarianism will never be overcome. Thomas’s assertion that prior "political unity" would have to have been established in order to prevent the Troubles is false from beginning to end. In fact, had a small but influential force of 500 or 1,000 workers who knew how to operate existed at the outset of the Troubles then the potential for working class unity would have had every chance of success. But what is the policy of the AWL on Northern Ireland? First of all, only Militant came out publicly and clearly against the introduction of British troops onto the streets following the events of August 1969. The forerunners of the AWL never raised opposition to the use of British troops publicly although they claim that they raised it inside the ranks of the IS. They then adopted a "two nations" perspective – two separate Protestant and Catholic "nations" existed they argued – and then, based on this, in effect argued for the repartitioning of Ireland. The fact that this could only be achieved through an outright sectarian civil war – in which the number of victims would have dwarfed those seen in the Troubles – is immaterial to this "practical" organisation.

The AWL and the trade unions

Alongside of an attempt to answer our criticisms of the no-fly position are outright lies about the position of the Socialist Party on many issues. For instance, they write: "If the SP-dominated PCS union leadership calls a strike cynically and hypocritically – as it often does, using PCS members as a stage army to boost the SP’s prestige and with no realistic thought of winning anything – that is not the same as that leadership calling off a strike cynically and hypocritically, as it also does." There is not an atom of politics or even political sense in this criticism not just of the Socialist Party but to the PCS and its membership. Fortunately, the AWL plays almost no role and has little influence in this union. The PCS, on the other hand, has become a rallying point for other unions looking to draw on the successful experiences of the PCS in a series of industrial struggles, including in the pensions battle of 2005, which along with other ultra-lefts the AWL heavily criticised at the time. They go on to criticise the Socialist Party’s political bloc with the RMT in the "No to EU" campaign, which they state was based on "the pretext that it is a ‘lesser evil’ than the EU". This is pure invention by the AWL! We fought a campaign with the RMT to oppose the anti-working class laws of the EU summed up in the Lisbon Treaty. But at the same time we argued in separate material for our programme for the position of a socialist Europe. Moreover, through a dialogue with the RMT leaders – rather than shouting from the sidelines – agreement was reached on a programme to oppose the anti-working class measures of the EU generally, which led to a successful campaign. This laid down a marker for other campaigns such as the setting up of TUSC; this in turn led to a successful intervention in the recent local elections.

In this situation, the AWL’s position amounts to political abstentionism. It faces two ways on the question of the Labour Party – ‘you pays your money, you takes your choice’ – with some supporting New Labour as a ‘traditional’ workers’ party and others rejecting this. They laughably write about our alleged “peaceful co-existence with the Labour Party machine” when we were members of the Labour Party, when it was, at bottom, a workers’ party. This alleged “co-existence” was so “peaceful” that the Labour right expelled us while the ineffectual AWL was not noticed! Matgamna, after he left our ranks in the 1960s, admitted: “If you had asked me in October 1966 what chance the Militant had of serious growth, I would have answered, none.” Sometime later he admitted: “There are not many areas of political or social life in which Trotskyist groups have had the possibility of playing a decisive role and where they played a major role in large-scale struggle. There are two examples in the British Trotskyist movement. One is Militant, when it led the Labour council in Liverpool after 1984.” This did not prevent them, with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), denouncing the ‘Militant-led’ city council as ‘sell-outs’. On the other hand, their representatives in the student field are notorious as consummate opportunists, willing to bloc and trade with anyone so long as they can capture official positions in the student structures.

Moreover, as we said in our original criticisms, their shrill tone is in inverse proportion to their very limited influence within the workers’ movement. They have displayed this once more, through Thomas, in his reply to us. However, we are not the only ones on the sharp end of their invective. Jim Denham, a well-known member of the AWL, wrote in his blog “Shiraz Socialist" about the leader of the RMT, Bob Crow, on March 14 this year: "The sub-Stalinist cult of Bob Crow (a total cult himself)”. It then carried a number of photographs of Bob Crow and underneath them read the charming description: “Portraits of a fake left twat”. This non-political insulting tone is quite foreign to the workers’ movement no matter who it is directed at. But to approach perhaps the most militant, certainly one of the best-known, trade union leaders in Britain in this way is scandalous. No workers’ leader should be above criticism. But given the enormous difficulties faced by the trade union movement in the last 20-30 years and the need to recreate the confidence of the working class in its organisation and leaders, it is necessary to phrase criticisms in a positive way. This is, unfortunately, entirely foreign to the AWL. Again, after the very successful National Shop Stewards Network conference earlier this year, when the AWL, along with the other ultra-left groups, were defeated and a fighting anti-cuts organisation was set up, this is what Denham wrote once more on his blog: "However, two leading RMT bureaucrats Alex Gordon and Steve Hedley were present at the conference and both spoke in support of the SP, though neither is a member… It would seem that Bob Crow and Alex Gordon had a meeting with Bill Mullins and Linda Taaffe (of the SP) in advance of the conference, and agreed a deal. This was never put to any constitutional body of the RMT. RMT activists may wish to raise this matter within the union." Once more this is a farrago of lies and misinformation. Leave aside the sneers about good RMT fighters being "bureaucrats"; there was no "deal" between the Socialist Party and Bob Crow over the conference. There was a meeting, a discussion and then agreement arising from this on how to approach the NSSN conference amongst individuals from the RMT, Bob Crow and Alex Gordon – they did not commit the RMT as an organisation to that position – and the Socialist Party representatives from the NSSN steering committee. Denham is incapable of accepting defeat in the most open and democratic conference seen in the labour movement in recent years. He prefers to give the impression of a sinister "deal". This once more illustrates the rotten character of the AWL and its representatives in its approach to others on the left and the labour movement generally.

The AWL’s history

At the beginning of his diatribe against me and the Socialist Party for daring to criticise their position, Thomas implies that we are afraid of politically taking up the position, that we “have been forced into the open", for the first time in 45 years to criticise the AWL and its forerunners. On the contrary, the AWL, before it was called this, through Sean Matgamna and a few other individuals, was, for a very short period, part of Militant – now the Socialist Party – in the 1960s. They constantly raised criticisms from the first moment that they joined our ranks – in the case of Sean Matgamna, as a refugee from the thuggish Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy. This culminated in them submitting a document of thousands of words for discussion at our national conference just before it was due to take place. The leadership of Militant said that we were prepared to discuss their ideas but properly and fully with full rank-and-file participation. This would not be possible in the time before the conference or at the conference itself; we could not have produced such a lengthy document or reply in time for Militant supporters to read it and make criticisms and comments. But we gave them an undertaking that we would publish the document and circulate it to the supporters of Militant and a full discussion could then take place on their ideas. They departed our ranks and collapsed into the International Socialists (IS) the forerunners of today’s SWP. They were incapable of conducting a sustained discussion where ideas were subjected to debate, as was the tradition and still is in our ranks. It was not Militant or its leadership that ran away but Matgamna and his handful of supporters.

It is true that we have only occasionally taken up their ideas subsequently for one very simple reason: their limited influence in the labour movement combined with precisely this shrill tone, which is a barrier to real discussion and to raising the level of understanding of young people and workers, which is fully on display in Thomas’s reply to us. The AWL represents a political dead end for workers and young people who wander, some of them accidentally, into their ranks. We hope that we can help to inoculate them against the false ideas and methods of the AWL which are unique only in one sense: they combine vicious ultra-left methods with an organically opportunist approach which is absolutely incapable of building substantial support within the workers’ movement. This has been amply demonstrated when they were put to the test and failed over the war in Libya.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


June 2011