Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 3, 2011

The Juan Cole/Gilbert Achcar controversy

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Juan Cole

Gilbert Achcar

(Part two of a series of articles on Libya)

Perhaps the reason people on the left are so upset with Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar’s “humanitarian intervention” arguments is that they are widely considered “one of us”. In Achcar’s case, the pain is even more acute for the Marxist wing of the left since his credentials are so well established.

Turning first to Juan Cole, we are operating on a plane fairly far removed from the Marxist literature on such matters. Whatever his position, he must be commended for sticking his neck out as a public intellectual. His blog article “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya” has 356 comments, including his own responses. Could you imagine Samantha Powers ever engaging with her critics in this way when she was at Harvard?

Cole begins with a trip down memory lane:

I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR often deferred to each other’s sphere of influence.

Clearly, Cole is missing the main point. If the disappearance of the USSR makes it easier for America to intervene, the only outcome that is guaranteed is a unipolar Empire of the sort that Queen Victoria ruled over. If Queen Victoria was committed to “human rights” in the Sudan, including the very same sorts of issues that George Clooney, Nicholas Kristof and Mia Farrow get worked up over today, why would we expect the American imperialists to behave any differently?  Their interest is never about stopping human rights abuses but broadening their global reach.

Like Achcar, Cole does make some very good arguments against the MRZine/Cockburn/Chossudovsky wing of the left:

The libel put out by the dictator, that the 570,000 people of Misrata or the 700,000 people of Benghazi were supporters of “al-Qaeda,” was without foundation. That a handful of young Libyan men from Dirna and the surrounding area had fought in Iraq is simply irrelevant. The Sunni Arab resistance in Iraq was for the most part not accurately called ‘al-Qaeda,’ which is a propaganda term in this case. All of the countries experiencing liberation movements had sympathizers with the Sunni Iraqi resistance; in fact opinion polling shows such sympathy almost universal throughout the Sunni Arab world. All of them had at least some fundamentalist movements. That was no reason to wish the Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians and others ill. The question is what kind of leadership was emerging in places like Benghazi. The answer is that it was simply the notables of the city. If there were an uprising against Silvio Berlusconi in Milan, it would likely unite businessmen and factory workers, Catholics and secularists. It would just be the people of Milan. A few old time members of the Red Brigades might even come out, and perhaps some organized crime figures. But to defame all Milan with them would be mere propaganda.

Unfortunately, he undermines the credibility gained with such solid arguments when he refers to Qaddafi as follows:

The implications of a resurgent, angry and wounded Mad Dog, his coffers filled with oil billions, for the democracy movements on either side of Libya, in Egypt and Tunisia, could well have been pernicious.

It would be a good idea for the left never to refer to Qaddafi as a “mad dog” considering the origins of this epithet. At an April 9, 1986 news conference, Reagan stated: “Well, we know that this mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Moslem fundamentalist revolution, which is targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots.”

Cole is also rather disingenuous in the way he finds legitimacy in an intervention that was not even approved by Congress (Dennis Kucinich, a creature that I would describe as invertebrate generally, has called for Obama’s impeachment):

The intervention in Libya was done in a legal way. It was provoked by a vote of the Arab League, including the newly liberated Egyptian and Tunisian governments. It was urged by a United Nations Security Council resolution, the gold standard for military intervention.

It is doubtful that anybody can take the idea that the Egyptian and Tunisian governments are “liberated” seriously. Right now the army holds power in Egypt and in Tunisia, the prime minister was appointed by the dictator Ben Ali’s unelected successor. This is not to speak of the role of Saudi Arabia in tilting the Obama administration toward intervention. You can be sure that Saudi Arabia has not yet been “liberated”, not even on the highly qualified basis of Egypt and Tunisia. Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar reports:

You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya – the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

This does not sound very much like the high-minded principles that are taught in Ivy League international relations seminars but more like “The Godfather part one” or HBO’s “The Sopranos”.

Cole tries to refute the arguments Marxism traditionally rests on against intervention by making a rather specious case:

Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade.

In fact, this has about as much to do with a NATO no-fly-zone as Obama has to do with Paul Robeson. However, there is a point that is worth taking up and that is whether “outsider” interference is always wrong. I will address that after a look at the case made by Gilbert Achcar.

As might be expected, Achcar, who is a Trotskyist at least by reputation, grounds his arguments in Marxist orthodoxy—or at least attempts to. The article titled “Libya: a legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective”,  like Cole’s, is a defense offered up to his comrades. It begins with an epigraph by Lenin:

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made. … To reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously … One must be able to analyze the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise. One must learn to distinguish between a man who has given up his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to lessen the evil they can do and to facilitate their capture and execution, and a man who gives his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to share in the loot.

Unfortunately, this treaty had little to do with the immediate question of an imperialist intervention in Libya. Frankly, there is little in Marxist literature that deals directly with such a matter since it is a phenomenon that only really began to take form long after Lenin’s death. We are dealing with various forms of “rescue” that combine multinational structures like the UN or NATO, or temporary coalitions with a veneer of legality, with powerful military assets, especially cruise missiles. Over and over again, we see operations like Kosovo, East Timor, and now Libya that follow a well-trodden path. The West intervenes to prevent “genocide” or massacres. The closest analogy, at least from a propaganda standpoint, is with Hitler’s genocides but it only works with East Timor.

While opposing Achcar’s arguments for intervention, Alex Callinicos offers an interesting example that seeks to make Achcar look like less of a renegade, not that this accusation made much sense to begin with:

Gilbert is right, revolutionaries have sometimes been prepared to take help from imperialist powers.

Soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, invading German armies were threatening the survival of the infant Soviet republic. Britain and France offered help. Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik central committee: “Please add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and weapons from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.” (The citation: The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Central Committee Minutes of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918 (London, 1974), p. 215)

But I don’t find this analogy very useful, or one that I have heard on Marxmail, namely that of Lenin coming to Russia on a German train. If you are going to use an analogy, it has to be much closer to the problem under consideration.

Ironically, Achcar’s trump card is one that makes his connection to the Trotskyist movement tenuous at best:

To take another extreme analogy for the sake of showing the full range of discussion: could Nazism be defeated through non-violent means? Were not the means used by the Allied forces themselves cruel? Did they not savagely bomb Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing huge numbers of civilians? In hindsight, would we now say that the anti-imperialist movement in Britain and the United States should have campaigned against their states’ involvement in the world war?

Ernest Mandel’s analysis of WWII holds up rather well against this line of reasoning that so many of us Trotskyist veterans who heard it from CP’ers in the 1960s and 70s but again from Christopher Hitchens during the wars in the Balkans and in Iraq.

I think that there must be a different way of evaluating situations such as that which confronts us now in Libya. The real problem is in determining the nature of the Libyan revolt that now has been condemned by the “anti-imperialists” as ex post facto counter-revolutionary because of Western intervention. In this schema, Qaddafi is “anti-imperialist” because Western jets are bombing his troops. I posed this question on Mike Ely’s Kasama Project but have not gotten any takers:

Just a hypothetical example but not that far from what happened. Let’s say that the Australian army encountered serious resistance from Indonesian militias trying to hold on to East Timor and that the East Timorese had been armed by the US. Would we support the Indonesian militias?

If Cole and Achcar err on the question of understanding the nature of the beast, their opponents in this debate err on the side of demonizing the men and women who took up arms against Qaddafi. By harping on CIA involvement with the rebels, they essentially reduce the opposition to something akin to the Nicaraguan contras or Savimbi’s killers in Angola. While I think both sides will outlive any errors (MRZine of course being excepted) made in this debate, neither has shown their best side.

Finally, although I oppose “humanitarian interventions” by the imperialists, I do think that outside rescues can play a role. When Tanzanian troops entered Uganda to topple Idi Amin, this was a genuine humanitarian intervention all the more so since the murdering tyrant was receiving outside support from guess who:

The same Gaddafi is said to have urged Idi Amin to declare himself as Life President and Amin did so but with dreadful consequences. Amin had to be removed from power by force. When his regime’s doomsday finally arrived in 1979, Amin’s dreaded State Research Bureau, or ‘superior’ army equipped to the tooth with MIGs, tanks, missiles, artilleries, and backed up by constant supplies from Godfather Gaddafi, became utterly useless.

Actually, Libyans fought side by side with Amin’s soldiers. 2,500 Libyan troops sent to aid Amin were equipped with T-54 and T-55 tanks, BTR APCs, BM-21 Katyusha MRLs, artillery, Mig 21s and a Tu-22 bomber, but they were easily defeated by the better organized combined Ugandan-Tanzanian forces commanded by David Oyite Ojok, Tito Okello and Yoweri Museveni.


  1. I think most Marxists would place intervention by Tanzania in Uganda (or Vietnam in Cambodia) in a different category from intervention by any of the more traditional imperial powers. An intervention by Tanzania or Vietnam does not fit within a long-standing geo-politico-economic order, whereas intervention by any of the traditional imperial powers does. Maybe one can argue that this is a distinction without a difference, but it’s notable nonetheless.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — April 3, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

  2. Would anyone have a clue just what this repufindtation of Achhar as a purported “Trotskyist” is based upon? I took a look at the Wiki page for Achhar and it claimed that Achhar was a contributor to ZMag and Le Monde. These are hardly “Trotskyist” outlets outside of the world of Right-wing paranoids. The only thing I could see on Achhar’s Wiki page which remotely smelled of Trotsky was that in 1999 he edited THE LEGACY OF ERNEST MANDEL. But commenting about Mandel’s legacy would seem far away from adopting Trotsky’s ideas. Achhar is listed on Wiki as having more recently co-authored with Noam Chomsky, who is avowedly anti-Trotsky. Are there any better sources to account for how on earth Achhar could have picked up such a reputation?

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — April 4, 2011 @ 2:45 am

  3. Good piece.

    Callinicos’ response conceded almost every point to Achcar, ultimately declaring himself “queasy” on the question without taking a position on the question which was the title of his article.

    The key is always sorting out what the politics of a given war/intervention are: who is on what side, why, what are they fighting for, what are the implications. It’s also important not to forget the context that we are operating in — what we have to emphasis in the U.S. about Libya is very different than if we were in Bengazi. That might seem obvious but sometimes it gets lost in the rush to dictate tactics to other people’s revolutions.

    Comment by Binh — April 4, 2011 @ 4:37 am

  4. Our first duty as Marxists is to support the workers of the world in organising to take power. They can, of course, onl,y do that if they are alive. The case for not opposing the intervention is a no-brainer.

    Comment by jim denham — April 4, 2011 @ 9:20 am

  5. I would like to compare this intervention with USA bombing Serbian forces in Bosnia to stope siege of Sarajevo. That is only time when I supported any USA bombing. In Bosnia left also supported Serbian fascists together with criminal Miloshevic regime because West (imperialist) supported other side. That West (Europe) support of Bosnia was very strange officially banning arming all side in Bosnia when Serbian side has unlimited supply of arms from Serbia and got leftover of former JNA in Bosnia. Later the West( Europe) allowed illegal arming of Bosnian(Muslim) side when they somehow survived initial ethnic cleansing and refugees starting to flood Europe. Four years of bombing Sarajevo on live TV was need before USA decided to stop it, but “left” was again against it, because was done by Imperialists USA. Who care about suffering of Sarajevo, Bosnians.
    I did not support bombing of Serbia in 1999 for two reasons, but bombing Serbian forces in Serbia when they attacked Bosnia in may, June 1992 I would support.
    1. I was very aware of nature of KLA ( basically mafia and criminal organisation)
    2. Miloshevich already accepted to withdraw “JNA” from Kosovo and accepted UN peace forces.
    For the same reason it is important to know who are the rebels against mad Gaddafi ( it is enough watch him and listen him for 2 minutes). According most reports http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article20912 those are mostly young people of Libya fighting trained mercenaries of Gaddafi.
    I totally support views of Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar . Left really should support people struggle against mad dictators (shame on Castros and Chavez)and in the same time be aware why Imperialists sometimes “help” popular resistance .

    Comment by yugoslav — April 4, 2011 @ 10:45 am

  6. As Marx might have said: ours is not to laugh or cry but to understand. It is not a case of opposing or supporting the intervention but explaining it.

    Why did the imperialists intervene?

    Because of the overwhelming global popularity of the Arab Spring and their economic interests in the region. Had the Libyan rebellion been an isolated phenomena Gadaffi would have been allowed to cut the throat of the Benghazian people and would have been congratulated for it for having played such a magnificient role in the War on Terror. Had they not intervened the global moral outcry at a TV broadcast massacre would have put Libyan oil behind sanctions for years and they would have been blamed.

    How they are actually incapable of acting from a humanitarian impulse.

    Explain how imperialism is entirel self interested and self-serving and not remotely interested in the fate of humanity as a whole. How it has kept the region economically retarded and under dictatorship for decades and how it only intervenes for `humanitarian’ reasons when it suits it. How it is organised hypocrisy.

    How the Libyan revolution can take advantage of the situation.

    The Benghazian masses were absolutely correct to take advantage of the intervention to defend their city and push Gadaffi back. The best thing would be if the Tripoli masses could have also toppled Gadaffi and reunified Libya with their Benghazi brothers and sisters under a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of workers and poor farmers which would kick out the regime and imperialism.

    What the proletariat in the West should do.

    Expose the nature of imperialism, encourage the libyan masses and warn against mission creep from the ostenbisle saving civilians narrative to towards either regime change or negotiations for partition or reunification under Gadaffi or the Gadaffi regime without Gadaffi.

    Comment by David Ellis — April 4, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  7. But I should add to that what actually happened:

    One set of `Marxists’ started blackguarding the revolution and became pro-Gadaffi and in actually fact became the most virulent supporters of mission creep demanding negotiations between Gadaffi and the West whilst another set of `Marxists’ gave uncritical support to the imperialist intervention and sewed illusions in its ability to take mankind forward. Something they always do being pro Iraq war, pro-Zionism and pro-everything imperialist.

    Comment by David Ellis — April 4, 2011 @ 11:10 am

  8. I should just add that what actually happened was that one set of `Marxists’ in the light of the intervention became pro-Gadaffi and began blackguarding the revolutionaries as opposed to encouraging the proletarian and democratic elements. They became the most forthright advocates of mission creep by demanding negotiations to prop up his regime. Another set of `Marxists’ were uncritical shills of imperialist `humanitarianism’ as befits their support for zionism, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Winston Churchill. They are the purveyors of illusions in the civilising project of the West.

    Comment by David Ellis — April 4, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  9. –To take another extreme analogy for the sake of showing the full range of discussion: could Nazism be defeated through non-violent means?—

    So its another X is like Hitler argument, dressed up a bit nicer.

    Comment by purple — April 4, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  10. Lou,

    I take issue on one point.

    Speaking for myself-and I would suspect many others-we have long since passed the point where we are “upset” when one or another left icon tacks moderately, or even sharply rightward. The Obama phenomenon, after all, to take one instance, constituted a kind of mass migration to the fertile plains of establishment respectability not just for one or two members of the left species but the near entirety of the herd. So a few stragglers now struggling to catch up shouldn’t come as a surprise.

    So if Libya is providing some leftists with an opportunity to establish themselves as “credible” in recognizing that U.S. military intervention can be in the service of the Good while overcoming what Norman Podhoretz characterized as their “sickly inhibitions against the use of force,” no one should be upset by this. Rather, one should simply take it for granted that some fraction of the left technocratic intellegensia will execute this, or some other lateral move, at some point in their career trajectory.

    The real question, as always, is what to do about it.


    Comment by John Halle — April 4, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  11. “If Cole and Achcar err on the question of understanding the nature of the beast, their opponents in this debate err on the side of demonizing the men and women who took up arms against Qaddafi.”

    Correction: Qaddafi took up arms against them.

    I would never support imperialist intervention in any form in any situation. Faced with the immediate armed repression of the Qaddafi gang, the Libyan revolution had the right to acquire arms from any source. As the present situation shows, conventional arms and military training are what is crucial, not the aerial intervention of imperialism. As soon as this latter subsided, the Qaddafi forces were able to bounce right back. Likewise with Achcars’ analogy with US/British air bombardment in WW2 (an awful, premeditated war crime comparable to the Nazis or the Japanese, but still celebrated rather than condemned!) – the bombardment had little effect on the german war machine, and therefore gave no military assistence to the Soviet Union.

    Air power is extremely overrated.

    Comment by Matt Russo — April 4, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

  12. “conventional arms and military training are what is crucial”

    That’s just what the people who sent the bombers are going to offer.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 5, 2011 @ 6:15 am

  13. Can you tell me where that Lenin quote is from? I tried to Google it, but all I came up with is the Mandel article you quoted (and you quoting this same Mandel article in the past). I’d like to read the entire piece in which it appeared if that is possible.

    Comment by Binh — April 5, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

  14. Keeping in mind that the quote is strung together from different sentences, I’d say that it came from here:


    Comment by louisproyect — April 5, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

  15. I meant the Lenin quote in the Mandel article where he talks about German imperialism, the Irish rebellion, etc. Sorry if I wasn’t clear when I posted my request. Thanks for the read though; it’s always good to read some Lenin now and then.

    Comment by Binh — April 6, 2011 @ 1:45 am

  16. Binh, I couldn’t find the quote online but I may take a look in the Columbia Library to see if I can find it. It may have not found its way into MIA. But this article does indicate that the Irish sought German aid:


    Comment by louisproyect — April 6, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  17. Thanks again Louis. I didn’t realize that not all of Lenin’s work was on MIA. I’m very aware of the circumstances and events of the 1916 rebellion. Being half Irish, I took it upon myself to learn what I could about James Connolly’s life and politics. What I was hoping to read about was Lenin’s take on the problem of imperialists aiding national liberation movements in the camps of their competitors since, as you said, that didn’t really become much of an issue until later in the 20th century. When people quote someone else, I always like to go back to the source to learn the context of the quote or argument.

    Comment by Binh — April 6, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

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