Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2011

Insights on Libya from Mike Ely

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 12:12 am

(Mike Ely blogs at the Kasama Project, an attempt to break with sectarianism by comrades from the Maoist tradition.)


August 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm

J.M. [This is Jay Moore, who Mike is going to reply to] writes:

“As far as I’m concerned the default Marxist position (of any sort of revolutionary Marxism that I can think of) is to oppose imperialism (and its agents). It is incumbent upon those, like Proyect, who think differently, to demonstrate it for us.”

Mike Ely:

In fact there is no “default Marxist position” on such matters — or any matters of practical politics. And describing your own personal position as a “default” serves to avoid the needed demonstration that you declare others need to make.

This view of marxism is itself one of the controversies in our discussions here — since arguments can’t (imho) be based on simply assuming or declaring some pre-existing “default,” then (on that basis) avoiding analysis, then denouncing those who disagree on the basis of violating the default.

Communism is a movement against class society and the oppression it creates. How that is fought (and against whom) at different moments and in different places — is a subject of analysis and line struggle.

To give an example:

In the course of China’s complex revolutionary process, Mao Zedong frequently spoke of three mountains on the backs of China’s people: imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism.

At different points in the revolutionary struggle, different “mountains” were the central focus of the popular struggle.

For example in the early base areas (in remote feudal regions), the main focus of the revolution was the class struggle for agrarian revolution (i.e. against feudalism), while waging armed struggle against the attacking armies of warlords and the GMD (i.e. local feudals and the national bureaucrat capitalists).

With the invasion of China by Japan, the situation changed. Mao viewed the contradiction as having objectively shifted to the one between China’s people and Japanese imperialism. Modifications were made in the policies of agrarian revolution (i.e. land seizures were stopped, rents were controlled, etc.), alliances were proposed and made with those bureaucrat capitalists opposed to the Japanese invaders. And, there was even an alliance (of sorts) with the imperialist war block fighting Japan in the Pacifiic (so that the Yenan forces of the communists accepted arms and war material from the U.S. imperialists etc.)

With the victory over Japan, the focus shifted to a new civil war with the GMD (again: bureaucrat capital) who were backed to the hilt by U.S. imperialism. And after the defeat of the GMD, the Chinese army had yet another war to fight agains the U.S. directly in Korea (with its diverse UN allies).

Finally, after the countrywide seizure of power in society was secured (through literally two decades of complex warfare and class struggle) the Communist Party of China led the world-historic agrarian revolution of the early-fifties, breaking the back of feudalism in China.

In the end, all three mountains were removed.

But such a complex process could not have been waged ( a ) with a Marxism that assumed itself to have some “default,” and ( b ) by an analysis that assumed (apriori? based on what?) that the contradictions in China, in the Third World and in the world as a whole were fixed, permanent, and easily deducible.

* * * * * * * * *

On the question of Libya….

There is an insistence that the only question here is whether to support or oppose U.S. imperialism. And then (by a sleight of hand) the measure of opposition to U.S. imperialism is presented as support for the Gaddafi regime.

If you don’t support the Gaddafi regime, you must support U.S. imperialism. If you oppose U.S. imperialism, you must support the Gaddafi regime.

This is mechanical in the extreme, and consists of a sequence of blurred over assumptions that flatten reality to a binary two-dimensions.

We live in the heartland of U.S. imperialism. We have a responsibility to expose and oppose the actions of “our” imperialists. We cannot build a movement worth spit if we don’t do that — militantly, consistently, creatively.

But there is no reason that this requires prettifying the bureaucrat capitalist regimes of the third world that they are (at various times) bullying — or denying the right (and need) of the people in these countries to overthrow these local oppressors as the opportunity emerges.

* * * * * * * *

There is another matter that I want to bring up:

It is implied in various parts of this dicussion that “anti-imperialism” is the view that specific imperialist powers is always and everywhere the “principal contradiction.” I think this too is reductionist.

Imperialism is a world system (not simply a set of powers). Certainly the U.S. military is a major and highly visible pillar of world imperialism. But the governments of major resources producers were themselves part of that world system — integral to its operations, and exploiters in their own right.

Opposing imperialism as a world system involves (of necessity) more than simply opposing the imperialist armies of great powers — it involves critiquing and overthrowing the relations between dominated countries and that world system. And that domination is embedded in the existence and operations of major bureaucrat capitalist forces in those countries as well.

Some people have trouble imagining that Gaddafi can be emmeshed in imperialism (as a mid-level player) if a) he is known to haggle over oil prices and b) he is targeted by the U.S. Why?

The whole OPEC thing is not anti-imperialist — it is a bargaining over price (by oil producer cartels) fully within the confines of capitalism and imperialism.

And the U.S. has often targeted (and killed) leaders of various third world states (Diem of Vietnam, Noriega of Panama, Saddam Hussein of iraq) without them having the slightest claim to anti-imperialism or progressive politics. That is, in fact, business as usual in the empire (and any empire).

In other words, U.S. targeting is hardly proof of any progressive content. And being targeted by the U.S. or fighting its forces doesn’t make you “objectively” anti-imperialist — it doesn’t change your class nature.

Also in this discussion, it is sometimes claimed that because some oil revenues were used for education or other social services that this documents some progressive (and again, anti-imperialist, and even socialist?) nature to the libyan government. However all oil producers use their massive funds to buy some social stability (is saudi arabia “progressive” because it pays for education and medical care? Was Saddam?) On the contrary, this is actual part of the mechanism of bureaucrat capitalism (and the difference between such bureaucrat capitalism and the kind of imposed government called ‘puppets’).

In some cases, leftist mind sets are back in the 1950s — where very crude “puppets” were imposed in the first days after colonialism. (Diem is an example). And if the subsequent third world governments nationalize industry, and demand higher prices, and use some of those funds for political stability — there are some socialists in the world who see their highest aspirations being realized. To me this reveals the nature of vision of socialism — in the form Mao called “goulash communism,” where political power, liberation and social transformation are forgotten, and “socialism” becomes little more than a package of bennies (handed out by an oppressive, capitalist state).

* * * * * * *


There is nothing anti-imperialist about the Gaddafi regime. Its ruling family were mid-level players fully within the world imperialist system, on a fully capitalist basis — using classic mechanism of oil regimes.

I am not saying that all capitalist forces are the same, or that all capitalist governments are the same, or all capitalist politicians are the same (we are not trying our own reductionism). But I am arguing that inventing a socialist, popular, or anti-imperialist nature for this state (or for Iran, or for Saddam’s Iraq) is to be deeply mistaken. (And it is in fact a historical residue of the era of Bresnev politics — where the imperialist Soviet state itself decreed various potential allies among the worlds bureaucrat capitalist regimes to be progressive, non-capitalist etc. This is not a spontaneous confusion, but a long historical line struggle over fundamental questions of class analysis and revolutionary strategy.)

I think that the main thing to do around the recent Libyan war was to loudly oppose the U.S./NATO attacks. These interventions were the major obstacle to the hopes of Libya’s people, and meant that (ultimately) the uprisings of against a government became instruments of continuing imperialist domination. And that is, in fact, an anti-imperialist position (while prettifying Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein is not understanding imperialism or opposing major forms of that system).

WE are anti-imperialist in these sense (and to the extent) that we oppose imperialism (as a world system). And we (revolutionaries within the U.S.) oppose and expose U.S. imperialism (in particular) with a self-conscious consistency and tenacity — both because of our position and because of our analysis of its role in the world.



  1. Louis,

    Hi hope you are well and that you did well during the storm.

    Lybia? You had a group of people wishing to secure resources (oil) and the crush the masses legitamate desire for change through revolution. So you take a popular uprising, hijack it by placing your own people on top. In the process you have temmporarily calmed the revolution and secured your resources. In the process you got rid of somebody who was at one point a trouble maker.

    NATO and the United States were just the tools for the industries behind. The five hundred thousand dollars per missile that were launched do have to be replaced. What’s next for Lybia? Further exploitation. Further opression of the poepl and probably a few NATO bases.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by John Kaniecki — August 29, 2011 @ 2:32 am

  2. If it were simply a matter of not prettifying people like Gaddafi, i would be in agreement with Mike Ely. I think that a discussion of the actual role of Qaddafi over the years may be interesting, but it is a side issue.

    Supporting the armed resistance of the Gaddafi-led Libyan armed forces against NATO and its local allies is in many respects not very different from Mao’s supporting the armed forces of Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese invaders. But what actually happened in Libya more like a situation that would have arisen if a politically heterogeneous armed opposition to Chiang, based largely on regional conflicts and opportunist defections from Chiang’s government, had existed instead of a peasant-worker-based revolutionary army, and that opposition had called on Japan to bomb Chiang’s forces and enable the opposition’s conquest of China.

    In that hypothetical case, I presume, Maoists would be for the support of Chiang’s army against the Japanese and their local allies.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 29, 2011 @ 2:45 am

  3. Supporting the armed resistance of the Gaddafi-led Libyan armed forces against NATO and its local allies is in many respects not very different from Mao’s supporting the armed forces of Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese invaders.

    I just love how morons invoke historical analogies when it comes to Libya. It is a sign of their inability/refusal to analyze Libyan social and political reality.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

  4. It’s sad to see how some former left academics in mental decline have to resort to name-calling when they can’t answer a political argument. But I’d have to be familiar with Louis Proyect’s work from before I came across him to be sure that his present mental state actually does represent a decline from his past ones.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 29, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

  5. I don’t mean that you are literally psychotic but your hairdo does give me pause to wonder.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  6. Those rightward-moving ex-leftists who aren’t ready to explicitly repudiate their radical past will try to justify their present-day accommodations to,. or outright capitulations to, their ruling class by explicitly or implicitly repeating the truism that every situation is different. I challenge our tonsorial psychiatrist, though, to show how the differences between the situations of China in the 1930’s and Libya in 2011 make it correct to have supported Chiang’s forces against imperialism then and NOT to have supported Qaddafi’s forces against imperialism now.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 29, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

  7. Aarons the Braying Donkey wrote:

    “I challenge our tonsorial psychiatrist, though, to show how the differences between the situations of China in the 1930′s and Libya in 2011 make it correct to have supported Chiang’s forces against imperialism then and NOT to have supported Qaddafi’s forces against imperialism now.”

    Oh, yeah? Well, Batman can beat up Superman . . . .

    Seriously, don’t you have a kulak to torture and blame for your own failings or something rather than wasting bandwidth on pointless abstract comparisons?

    Comment by Todd — August 29, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

  8. Aaron, you were clearly trained in some Trotskyist sect 30 years ago or more and still have the bad habits you learned there. I am not interested in historical analogies but at looking at Libyan social reality without trying to pigeonhole it into preconceived categories. As has been reported, the prisons have been emptied of men who were guilty of nothing except opposing a torture state. I understand that such acts depress you and that you would much prefer that Qaddafi remained in power and that the prisons remained filled to the brim with men who got their teeth knocked out or worse but my political orientation is utterly different than yours. I take great pleasure when such dungeons are emptied. Our different reactions to this indicates that we are far too apart to have a serious debate. I would not waste my time debating a Spartacist League member who showed up here, so why should I waste time answering your polemical barbs? I feel much more motivated to comment on your ridiculous hairdo. Men your age should not try to look like they are going to a Grateful Dead concert, if you gather my drift.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  9. Actually, it’s 45 years since I got legitimately expelled from the Sparticist League — a month after I helped found it — and 40 years since I got bureaucratically expelled from the Revolutionary Marxist Caucus of SDS that the SL was quietly turning into their Youth League. (Ironically, a few hours before the latter expulsion, Jim Robertson made derogatory remarks about my ‘hippie’ shoes — actually custom-molded shoes that I wore because of a foot problem! But I’m sure he wouldn’t like my hair either.)

    As much as my relationship with the Spartacist League has been unfriendly or non-existent for 40 years now, I can’t see any reason to refuse to debate them in a forum they don’t control. If you are so sure they are wrong, why not refute them in a public debate? If you can’t refute them, and I suspect that you can’t in many situations where you differ with them, you can always resort to name-calling.

    BTW, Louis, where have I said anything about Qaddafi’s prisons or prisoners? Your creation of another straw man shows that we are too far apart — with you being somewhere in a rather nasty version of Fantasy Land — to convince each other of anything. Of course, I don’t debate people like you or your shadow, Todd, to influence THEM, but to influence others who may be paying attention.

    Speaking of the prisons, what about the Black African migrant workers and captured soldiers who didn’t live to see the inside of a prison? Perhaps the Libyan part of the ‘Arab Spring’ is actually part of the ‘African WInter’!

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 29, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  10. BTW, Louis, where have I said anything about Qaddafi’s prisons or prisoners?

    Nowhere. That is the point.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

  11. You, Louis, seem to think that it is a good use of the limited voice of leftists to amplify selected propaganda of the rulers, while I reserve my small voice for saying what the ruling class enemy doesn’t want people to hear or think.

    Despite my differences with, and bad personal history with, the Spartacist League, I’ll take their analysis over yours any day as a first approximation to a correct position on any issue.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 30, 2011 @ 6:24 am

  12. By the way, there are “default Marxist position[s]”, and default left positions, on many questions of practical politics, including:

    * Don’t scab on a strike.

    * Defend oppressed minorities against lynch mobs and pogroms,

    * Oppose discrimination and violence against women.

    When there are exceptions to such general rules, they need a strong justification. For example, it should be easy to convince radicals of all sexes that the attempt to blow up Margaret Thatcher at Brighton in 1984 was a legitimate, if unsuccessful, exception to the third principle.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 30, 2011 @ 9:02 am

  13. When I lived in west virginia, one of the challenges of anti-religious discussions was that some people would look you straight in the eyes and say (with real sincerity) “Jesus speaks to me. How can you say he doesn’t exist.”

    One guy said that the Devil appeared at the foot of his bed one night, and also that he saw a snake turn into a dog and then into a man.

    People often give their beliefs magical meaning and invent special origins for their ideas.

    As a coal miner, I know the value of picket lines, and have dealt with my share of scabs. But my views on scabs and picketlines (which are complex, contextual and derived from analysis) don’t reach me through some magical entity called “default Marxism.” (did marx even express views on picket lines? I think his views on politics and revolution were not nearly as strike fixated as some!)

    In one case we were faced a strike of the wives of foremen opposing women entering the mines (in a remarkable excavation of assumptions, they explained that they were sure their husbands would extract sexual favors under ground).

    In another case we faced the “textbook protest” where tens of thousands of miners struck against (!) black literature and sex eductaion in schools.

    IN those cases we opposed the picket lines, but did not cross them — but worked hard to defuse and defeat the strikes.

    And just as obviously I am against lynch mobs and for the heroic protection of victims (I have myself been the target of a lynchmob waving an actual noose, and came close to dying). And obviously I am against violence against women. (In case any of these things need to be said).

    But the origin of those beliefs is not some mechanistic “default” that emerged somewhere (how? when exactly? by whose decree?) They have a specific context, and a specific reason for their importance, and our views on them arise from critical thinking and communist nalysis.

    Life is complicated, communist politics is dynamic and contextual.

    Comment by Mike E — August 30, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  14. What I refer to as “default” positions are generally-accepted consensus positions of the socialist, communist and anarchist left. But calling them “default” positions (I didn’t choose the word originally) means precisely that they can be over-ridden if there are good arguments for doing so. In the cases Mike mentions of strikes or pickets at the mines, both of them were cases where those doing the striking or picketing were acting against the general interest of the workers and oppressed and were not, in either case, fighting even for the narrow class interest of any section of the working class against their capitalist exploiters. One was a reactionary, racist political strike and the other was not even a strike, since wives of foremen can hardly withhold their labor.

    Yes, not breaking strikes or crossing strikers’ picket line is still the DEFAULT position of leftists. And every computer user, at least, should know that defaults can be over-ridden.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 30, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

  15. What I refer to as “default” positions are generally-accepted consensus positions of the socialist, communist and anarchist left.

    This coming from an ex-Spart who still agrees with their politics. A group that was led by a crackpot who went ballistic when the SWP endorsed sending federal troops into Arkansas to protect Black schoolchildren from racist mobs, and who saw a condolence letter to Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of her husband in the same terms as socialist deputies voting for war credits in 1914. No wonder this group is the laughing stock of the left.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 30, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

  16. Mike Ely wrote: “And being targeted by the U.S. or fighting its forces doesn’t make you “objectively” anti-imperialist — it doesn’t change your class nature.”

    Regardless of the class nature of those doing the resisting, material opposition (by armed struggle, sabotage, etc.) to U.S. forces anywhere in the world is objectively anti-imperialist, regardless of the nature and motives of those doing the resistance. Perhaps one could conjure up a hypothetical, or even real, situation in which it could be argued that this wasn’t the case, but it’s certainly a very strong DEFAULT position that would require good arguments to over-ride.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 30, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  17. And let’s never forget that Andrew Carnegie, who crushed the Homestead strike, was a member of the Anti-Imperialist League.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 30, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

  18. Re #15: Apparently being in general (not full!) agreement with the formal positions of a group whose leader allegedly took allegedly ultra-left or sectarian positions in 1957 and 1963 makes one’s politics unworthy of consideration, while supporting an ongoing military attack by one’s own imperialist government on another country — and one which is certainly NOT a rival imperialist power — doesn’t disqualify one from having one’s writings to that effect promoted on this blog.

    If I have accomplished nothing else with my posts here, I’ve provoked a pseudo-leftist charlatan to expose himself multiple times. Can’t keep that ‘leftist’ trench-coat closed, can you, Louis?

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — August 30, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

  19. If I have accomplished nothing else with my posts here, I’ve provoked a pseudo-leftist charlatan to expose himself multiple times.

    There’s something terribly pathetic and parasitic about you, Aaron. Your idea of revolutionary politics is to stake out some position to the left of the “traitor” of the week as if this has something to with socialism. It is the sickness of the Trotskyist movement that became terminal with the Sparts. If Stalinism is the syphilis of the workers movement, then your brand of verbal windbaggery is more like herpes. Not fatal, but a true annoyance.

    People like Jim Robertson never understood that the task of a vanguard is not just to “expose” traitors but provide leadership. You trawl through different blogs making leftist statements as if anybody or anything would be changed by that. In fact, your role in the left is one of sterile kibitzing only one step up from masturbation. Real revolutionaries are judged on their contribution to mass movements that change society. The true inspiration for your sad, inconsequential life is not VI Lenin but Walter Mitty.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 30, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

  20. Aaron writes:

    “Regardless of the class nature of those doing the resisting, material opposition (by armed struggle, sabotage, etc.) to U.S. forces anywhere in the world is objectively anti-imperialist, regardless of the nature and motives of those doing the resistance. ”

    This is not true… I’m not sure what your definition of anti-imperialist is (since it is, by itself, vague, and you can, of course, DEFINE it to mean: any opposition to the U.S. regardless of nature and motives.)

    But if you look at U.S. history, there have been lots of wars and collisions where neither side was anti-imperialist. (Aaron: meet the Kaiser, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, and so on.)

    There was nothing “anti-imperialist” in Noriega of Panama. Or Diem (who Kennedy had assassinated). And there are many cases (in the world today) where governments fully entwined in imperialism (Iran, Libya, Syria, etc.) have sharp conflicts with the U.S.

    This is because capital divides into many rival capitals (and many levels of capital) — and because competition and conflict over price and capital is inherent.

    The oppression of capitalism gives rise to resistance and wars, but so does the inter-capitalist rivalry (including as Russia and china at times prod Iran etc all to “stand up” to the U.S.)

    Obviously the U.S. plays a special role in modern world imperialism (in ways we should describe with more precisions), and obviously Iran, Libya, North Korea, Saddam Hussein, etc. were local oppressors (compared to the U.S.) China is not quite as “middle level” — and the conflicts there are more on the global scale.

    Also, I could point out the jihadist forces — which are often bitterly reactionary and anti-communist. Some U.S. opponents in Afghanistan started their political life throwing acid into the faces of women students who did not wear veils — do we invent a special kind of “anti-imperialism” to pin on them? Are they somehow allies of the popular struggle for radical change? I think not.

    We can oppose the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. We can oppose the imposition of pathetic corrupt puppets like Karzai — all without “supporting” the forces fighting the U.S. or pretending they are (somehow) progressive, or staining the word “anti-imperialist” by handing it to them.

    Comment by Mike E — August 31, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

  21. Aarons farted:

    “Of course, I don’t debate people like you or your shadow, Todd”

    You don’t read much (or well), then, do you?

    Comment by Todd — September 1, 2011 @ 2:39 am

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