Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
–Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire”
By now it has become clear that there are four different perspectives on the left about Libya:
1. Qaddafi as heroic anti-imperialist: Found at Counterpunch, MRZine, and Global Research, this perspective relies heavily on falsification such as the claim that NATO invaded because Qaddafi opposed AFRICOM. My emphasis has been to debunk these claims even though this led to me being accused of supporting NATO. One supposes the only way to avoid such false accusations is to follow the bullshit party line of the brain-dead “anti-imperialist” left. No thanks.
2. The rebels were good guys until NATO got involved: This is the analysis put forward by the ISO in the USA and the SWP in Britain. I was sympathetic to this analysis but came to reject it during the Berber offensive in Western Libya. As someone who despises the oppression of national minorities, I began to realize that there was more to the revolt than puppets whose strings were being pulled by NATO.
3. My own analysis: this should be obvious from the comment above.
4. Gilbert Achcar: Achcar defended NATO’s no-fly zone. As a long-time opponent of imperialist interventions, I could not abide by this although I found much of Achcar’s analysis on the money. Despite his being vilified by members of the Counterpunch tendency, I don’t regard him in the same light as the Paul Bermans and Kenan Makiyas of the world. I would tend to regard his position as falling into the category of a legitimate mistake made by revolutionary in much the same way I regarded some comrades’ support for the KLA.
UPDATE: I just got email from Achcar complaining that I misrepresented him. Instead of trying to characterize his views, I will simply quote his March 25 Znet article and let my readers draw their own conclusions:
Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore a popular movement’s plea for protection, even by means of imperialist bandit-cops, when the type of protection requested is not one through which control over their country could be exerted? Certainly not, by my understanding of the left. No real progressive could just ignore the uprising’s request for protection — unless, as is too frequent among the Western left, they just ignore the circumstances and the imminent threat of mass slaughter, paying attention to the whole situation only once their own government got involved, thus setting off their (normally healthy, I should add) reflex of opposing the involvement. In every situation when anti-imperialists opposed Western-led military interventions using massacre prevention as their rationale, they pointed to alternatives showing that the Western governments’ choice of resorting to force only stemmed from imperialist designs.
In the absence of any other plausible solution, it was just morally and politically wrong for anyone on the left to oppose the no-fly zone; or in other words, to oppose the uprising’s request for a no-fly zone. And it remains morally and politically wrong to demand the lifting of the no-fly zone — unless Gaddafi is no longer able to use his air force. Short of that, lifting the no-fly zone would mean a victory for Gaddafi, who would then resume using his planes and crush the uprising even more ferociously than what he was prepared to do beforehand. On the other hand, we should definitely demand that bombings stop after Gaddafi’s air means have been neutralized. We should demand clarity on what air potential is left with Gaddafi, and, if any is still at his disposal, what it takes to neutralize it. And we should oppose NATO turning into a full participant of the ground war beyond the initial blows to Gaddafi’s armor needed to halt his troops’ offensive against rebel cities in the Western province — even were the insurgents to invite NATO’s participation or welcome it.
The question of rebel racism tends to reveal how the different perspectives line up against each other. For Counterpunch’s sorry gaggle of Qaddafi apologists, racism only became a problem in February 2011. When Qaddafi’s troops lost control in Benghazi, there was an outbreak of racist pogroms—an unheard of phenomenon in enlightened Libya. For them, it was like Union troops being withdrawn from Dixie at the end of Reconstruction.
The British SWP’s Richard Seymour wrote a piece for the Guardian’s “Comments are Free” calling attention to the rebel attacks on African workers that acknowledged the racism that existed in Libya historically:
How did it come to this? A spectacular revolution, speaking the language of democracy and showing tremendous courage in the face of brutal repression, has been disgraced. Racism did not begin with the rebellion – Gaddafi’s regime exploited 2 million migrant workers while discriminating against them – but it has suffused the rebels’ hatred of the violently authoritarian regime they have just replaced.
This is certainly a step upward from Counterpunch’s coverage of Libya, but then again nearly anything would be.
Despite his impressive Marxist credentials, Richard betrays a certain sense of fatalism in describing all the bad things going on Libya, from racist attacks on Africans to joining hands with NATO:
An explanation for this can be found in the weaknesses of the revolt itself. The upsurge beginning on 17 February hinged on an alliance between middle class human rights activists and the working classes in eastern cities such as Benghazi. Rather than wilting under repression, the rebellion spread to new towns and cities. Elements of the regime, seeing the writing on the wall, began to defect. Military leaders, politicians and sections of business and academia sided with the rebels.
But the trouble was that the movement was almost emerging from nowhere. Unlike in Egypt, where a decade of activism and labour insurgency had cultivated networks of activists and trade unionists capable of outfoxing the dictatorship, Libya was not permitted a minimal space for civil society opposition. As a result, there was no institutional structure able to express this movement, no independent trade union movement, and certainly little in the way of an organised left. Into this space stepped those who had the greatest resources – the former regime notables, businessmen and professionals, as well as exiles. It was they who formed the National Transitional Council (NTC).
When I read this, I can’t help but think of the Faust legend. In exchange for immortality, Faust sells his soul to the devil. At the end of Goethe’s play, the devil comes to collect on his debt and leads Faust down to the fiery pits of hell. For the rebels, another such punishment awaits them but it is not Hades—it is ending up like Iraq and Afghanistan. If they don’t like it, too bad. That’s what happens when you make a pact with the devil.
Some people have trouble with this deterministic scenario. When the ISO published an article following Richard’s analysis (either intentionally or unintentionally), an Arab leftist wrote in:
But that the rebellion benefited from NATO support in its insurgency still doesn’t mean that the rebellion has lost its way or is a stooge of imperialism. The overwhelming thrust of the rebellion has been paid for by a determined struggle of the Libyan people, who sacrificed perhaps as much as tens of thousands of lives for their freedom. The thought that they would allow the fruits of their rebellion to be so easily snapped up by an ex-regime, pro-West alliance, is unlikely, premature and excessively cynical.
Here lies the main fault of the article: The Arab Spring is about human agency and popular will, which cannot so easily be put back in the bottle–and certainly not by an opportunistic section of the opposition in cahoots with the Western governments and Big Oil.
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THOSE WHO will determine the fate of Libya are the people themselves, and particularly the fighting forces on the ground, most of whom have correctly focused on fighting the regime, rather than flirting with Western diplomats. The balance of power between these different elements of the opposition remains to be disclosed, though it is premature to select the winner now.
While this should not be seen as an excuse for rebel racism, there really has to be much more attention paid to the background of such ugliness. To start with, the presence of sub-Saharan workers in Libya has to be understood in the same light as the bracero program in the USA that brought Mexicans in to pick fruits during WWII because of a labor shortage. Qaddafi did exactly the same thing. In 2000, well over 20 percent of the workforce consisted of immigrant labor—mostly from sub-Saharan Africa.
After judging that the supply now exceeded the demand, the Libyan authorities began to crack down on “illegals” just as has been occurring in the USA. They also collaborated closely with Berlusconi who complained of the same problem. From 2003 to 2005 Libya threw 145,000 undocumented workers out of the country, an accomplishment that President Obama would probably envy.
All throughout this period, the Libyan cops were following extrajudicial procedures just like those in Arizona. When human rights groups complained, the Libyan government defended itself by saying that immigrants enjoyed the same rights as its citizens. Wow, that must have come as some relief.
It should be mentioned that Qaddafi launched his bracero program using pan-African rhetoric.
Cheap labor was being imported because he believed in African unity. Anti-foreigner sentiment grew in Libya despite Qaddafi’s lip-service to fraternalism. It should be noted that all of Qaddafi’s fans who point to his racially enlightened views have probably not spent much time looking at his Green Book, the fount of all his wisdom. On page 30 you can read this:
Black people are now in a very backward social situation, but such backwardness works to bring about their numerical superiority because their low standard of living has shielded them from methods of birth control and family planning. Also, their old social traditions place no limit on marriages, leading to their accelerated growth. The population of other races has decreased because of birth control, restrictions on marriage, and constant occupation in work, unlike the Blacks, who tend to be less obsessive about work in a climate which is continuously hot.
Didn’t Jimmy the Greek get fired for saying things like this?
Given the precarious state of immigrant labor in Libya, it should be no surprise that pogroms were unleashed starting in 2000. That year, on September 17, the BBC reported:
The Libyan General People’s Congress has instituted new security measures across the country.
Correspondents say they are believed to be in response to clashes reported to have taken place between Libyans and African expatriates in the town of Zawiya, west of Tripoli.
The Sudanese independent daily newspaper Akhbar al-Yom reported 50 people were killed in clashes between Libyans and nationals of Sudan and Chad.
In a statement the Congress said it had ordered the authorities to stem the hiring of foreigners by the private sector.
Immigrants from neighbouring Arab and African countries have been lured to oil and gas-rich Libya in search of work.
Earlier Sudan asked Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to intervene to try to contain the situation.
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail had made telephone calls to a number of Libyan officials.
Considering the social milieu that the rebels came out of, it is no surprise that they did not arise above it. In a parallel universe other Libyans might have eschewed armed resistance and spent months and months building civil society but one cannot be guaranteed that Qaddafi would have not crushed the movement. Unlike Egypt or Syria, the totalitarian grip of the great leader was far more like what was seen in Eastern Europe. He brooked no opposition in the country and efforts to discuss the country’s real problems—including racism—were nipped in the bud.
Given the brutality of the rebels, it is understandable why some would want to wash their hands of them. I can’t blame Richard Seymour for expressing his disgust. Of course, on the other hand, the Counterpunch apologists for Qaddafi deserve a spot in hell alongside Faust’s for their brazen lies about “enlightened” racial policies in the good old days.
I cannot help but think of the Soviet Red Army that saved humanity by pushing Hitler’s army back into Europe and breaking the Nazi war machine once and for all. In his article Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two, Ernest Mandel wrote:
…there was a just war of national defence of the Soviet Union, a workers state, against an imperialist power. The fact that the Soviet leadership allied itself not only in a military way – which was absolutely justified – but also politically with the Western imperialists in no way changed the just nature of that war. The war of the Soviet workers and peasants, of the Soviet peoples and the Soviet state, to defend the Soviet Union against German imperialism was a just war from any Marxist-Leninist point of view. In that war we were 100 per cent for the victory of one camp, without any reservations or question marks. We were for absolute victory of the Soviet people against the murderous robbers of German imperialism.
No matter how just that war was, how could any leftist support the troops who were capable of carrying out atrocities that dwarf any occurring in Libya today? In a May 1, 2002 article titled ‘They raped every German female from eight to 80′, Antony Beevor wrote:
“Red Army soldiers don’t believe in ‘individual liaisons’ with German women,” wrote the playwright Zakhar Agranenko in his diary when serving as an officer of marine infantry in East Prussia. “Nine, ten, twelve men at a time – they rape them on a collective basis.”
The Soviet armies advancing into East Prussia in January 1945, in huge, long columns, were an extraordinary mixture of modern and medieval: tank troops in padded black helmets, Cossack cavalrymen on shaggy mounts with loot strapped to the saddle, lend-lease Studebakers and Dodges towing light field guns, and then a second echelon in horse-drawn carts. The variety of character among the soldiers was almost as great as that of their military equipment. There were freebooters who drank and raped quite shamelessly, and there were idealistic, austere communists and members of the intelligentsia appalled by such behaviour.
Beria and Stalin, back in Moscow, knew perfectly well what was going on from a number of detailed reports. One stated that “many Germans declare that all German women in East Prussia who stayed behind were raped by Red Army soldiers”. Numerous examples of gang rape were given – “girls under 18 and old women included”.
Marshal Rokossovsky issued order No 006 in an attempt to direct “the feelings of hatred at fighting the enemy on the battlefield.” It appears to have had little effect. There were also a few arbitrary attempts to exert authority. The commander of one rifle division is said to have “personally shot a lieutenant who was lining up a group of his men before a German woman spreadeagled on the ground”. But either officers were involved themselves, or the lack of discipline made it too dangerous to restore order over drunken soldiers armed with submachine guns.
Calls to avenge the Motherland, violated by the Wehrmacht’s invasion, had given the idea that almost any cruelty would be allowed. Even many young women soldiers and medical staff in the Red Army did not appear to disapprove. “Our soldiers’ behaviour towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!” said a 21-year-old from Agranenko’s reconnaissance detachment. A number seemed to find it amusing. Several German women recorded how Soviet servicewomen watched and laughed when they were raped. But some women were deeply shaken by what they witnessed in Germany. Natalya Gesse, a close friend of the scientist Andrei Sakharov, had observed the Red Army in action in 1945 as a Soviet war correspondent. “The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to eighty,” she recounted later. “It was an army of rapists.”
Now of course everybody (except die-hard Stalinists) understand that the Kremlin was socialist in name only at this point and that such cruelty was perhaps to be expected. But does this negate the progressive character of the war against Hitler?
If we measure the rebel conduct in Libya or the Red Army’s in 1945 against those that were found in the Red Army in 1919 or in the Oriente Province in 1959, there is little doubt that they will fall short. But on the other hand, a good case can be made that they were all part of the upward march of humanity against oppression. Sometimes history will throw you a curve ball. It is best to keep your eye on the ball and figure out a way to move from our unhappy status today and toward a better future. In my view, the left in the West has to figure out a way to relate to the rebels in Libya who decided to risk their lives fighting against a torture state that was armed to the teeth by the very imperialists who now decided to change horses in midstream. This is especially true since there are ominous signs that the imperialists have about as much interest in armed militias challenging the prerogatives of the TNC as they would toward any such formation in the Middle East. The agenda of the West is to rapidly disarm the rebels and figure out a way to impose Qaddafi-ism without Qaddafi. This is something that the citizen-soldiers of Libya would resist to the death and we have to figure out a way to offer solidarity, even if we can’t abide by their racist treatment of African workers. This may not seem easy, but we have no other choice.