Debate: NATO in Libya: A tactical, necessary evil

[For more left views on Libya, click HERE.]

By Iggy Kim and Marce Cameron

April 3, 2011 -- The NATO intervention in Libya is a necessary evil. Evil, yes, but necessary just the same. At least for the present.

The brutal reality of the early weeks of March was the choice between the crushing of the centre of liberated Libya in Benghazi or the securing of much-needed time (and protection) for the regrouping of the revolutionary forces – however this needed to be obtained, given the urgent imperatives of the actual struggle. The ends do command the means. That is the unavoidable reality confronted by all masses in political motion, engaged in open, class warfare, and no less one that has gone over into armed struggle.

Democratic revolution based on popular power

To be absolutely clear: what began in Libya on February 17, 2011, is a revolution. The mass of predominantly young Libyans who made their “forcible entry into history” are making a revolution. They are the sans-culottes of a national democratic revolution against the autocratic, pro-imperialist regime of Gaddafi. These impoverished youth, like the original sans-culottes, are the engine of the revolution. With nothing to lose, they hold the potential to further Jacobinise the Libyan revolution.

Since its inception, the revolution has already – spontaneously – given rise to organs of popular rule. Self-organising committees have been running each liberated city and town since mid-February. Early reports from Benghazi were full of the spontaneous self-organising activities of the youthful revolutionaries, including seizing the bulldozers of Western contractors to break into Gaddafi’s arsenals. These youths armed themselves and continued to self-organise into a rough-hewn popular militia – the backbone of the current armed struggle to liberate the west of the country.

The revolution’s liberal bourgeois leadership rests upon this armed proletarian and semi-proletarian social base. Yes, some of the leaders are defectors from the Gaddafi regime. But their room for manoeuvre is subject to the dynamic class antagonisms of any such multi-class, democratic revolution that is driven by the mobilisation of a youthful, proletarian mass. The bourgeois-dominated Transitional National Council (TNC) rests on the power of the popular committees. The founding statement of the TNC, issued on March 5, opens with the following preamble: “The Council derives its legitimacy from the city councils who run the liberated cities, and who had been formed by the revolution of the 17th February…”.

Further, their four-point declaration leads with the following first point:

  1. The Council emphasised that the most important role is the one played by the youth. They were the base of foundation of the revolution and the focal power for the Libyans to reach where they stand today to be able to demand the termination of the dictatorial regime

The TNC’s eight-point (bourgeois) democratic program reflects its multi-class character. It is a succinct document that seeks to accommodate all the shades and trends of democratic forces involved in the revolution. Its economic clauses are quite general, declaring that “the nation’s economy [is] to be used for the benefit of the Libyan people by creating effective economic institutions in order to eradicate poverty and unemployment”.

Imperialism’s nemesis: Libyan youth or Western ‘public opinion’?

The Libyan revolution, thus far, represents the most far-reaching of the Arab-wide revolutionary process. The dialectic of this is that, on the one hand, it represents the greatest threat to imperialist interests throughout the Arab world – a beacon to snuff out; on the other hand, the Libyan Revolution also represents the singularly greatest counter-force against NATO’s inevitable push to foray beyond its current tactical convergence with the revolution.

A recognition of this dialectic is missing in the debate on the left. Opponents of the NATO intervention seem to dismiss the pivotal, subjective factor of the self-organised and self-armed Libyan revolutionary youth. They warn ad nauseam of imperialism’s ultimate designs, whether that be for oil or to co-opt the Arab revolution. However, dwelling on the intentions, motives and interests of the imperialist powers is no answer to the concrete exigencies, in the here and now, of the Libyan revolution. Warning of future dangers cannot replace, or justify neglecting, due attention to a clear and present urgency.

We understand what NATO wants out of this. And we have no illusion that “Western public opinion” (certainly in its atomised, passive form) will stay the hand of NATO. What we are confident of, though, is the further radicalising potential and anti-imperialist consciousness of the Libyan revolutionary youth. They are on the march. A major grievance that fuelled their uprising in the east was the egregious and conspicuous profiteering of Western corporations and contractors, who were given carte blanche over the region’s hydrocarbons by Gaddafi.

In any case, our support for the Libyan revolution should not be conditional on its internal dynamics and forces, or the character of the leadership. Revolutions are messy affairs. They are led and driven by all sorts of people. Opportunists flock back and forth. The seeming absence of consciously Marxist forces will curtail the strategic vision and trajectory of the plebeian ranks, despite their advanced level of spontaneous self-organisation. Still, the deeply self-organised and self-armed character of the revolution is itself very significant. It has produced splits in the repressive institutions of the Gaddafi state. It has already exerted pressure on the revolution’s bourgeois leaders, who are all too aware of what their power and legitimacy rests upon. And it puts the sans-culottes in a position of advantage vis-a-vis imperialism, when the current latent antagonism ruptures into open confrontation. The absence of a Marxist party need not obstruct this development in a semi-colonial nation (national liberation, after all, is essentially bourgeois in character).

Anyway, are revolutionaries not entitled to seek assistance from wherever it may come, given the concrete conditions and imperatives they face? The NATO intervention was demanded both by the TNC and its working class base. Surely this can not be dismissed by Western leftists as some sort of false consciousness or misguided demand. The particular difficulties of the revolution and its armed struggle have been conditioned by Libya’s unique geopolitical division between east and west (disparity of the spoils of oil), and their separation by fully exposed desert terrain. Surely the Libyan fighters themselves are in the best tactical position to judge the needs and limits that flow from these conditions.

The danger of lip service

Imperialism dithered over whether and how to intervene. Paris and London led the charge, the former initiating the diplomatic recognition of the TNC, and both obviously driven by the need to expand their more minor domination of Libya’s hydrocarbons. Despite repeated calls from the TNC, other powers dragged their feet. Eventually, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed on 19 March. In addition to possible deal making between the imperialists and individual leaders of the TNC, there also remains the possibility that the UN decision was partly influenced by the spontaneous, direct action of the Libyan oil workers who disrupted oil supplies to western Europe as far back as February, in an effort to raise pressure for the intervention. The Economist reported one such action on February 21 in the oil port of Brega. This combination of elite lobbying and mass direct action is a part and parcel of the mixed class composition and character of the revolution.

The outcome, so far, speaks for itself. The wiping out of the revolutionary capital in Benghazi has been staved off. The centre of the liberation remains standing. The Libyan vanguard has survived. A compromise with imperialism – calling for NATO intervention – has delivered this defensive success. Compromise with imperialism is occasionally necessary. Such as when a revolution is at stake. The Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk is a famous example. East Timor in 1999 was a more controversial case. But no amount of historical analogy can do justice to the unique realities and necessities of each new conjuncture.

The inevitable intrusion of imperialism in a post-Gaddafi Libya is not sufficient grounds to advocate inaction now. Imperialism has already been ravaging the country. At the very least, the question comes down to: either an autocratic, pro-imperialist regime or a pro-imperialist regime with basic (bourgeois) democratic protections founded on a mobilised working class. The former was guaranteed had Gaddafi been given a free hand in his eastern offensive. The intervention has, at least, ensured the survival of Benghazi and the revolution.

Yes, Libya’s revolutionary forces have not been strong enough to deal a swift blow to Gaddafi. For the opponents of the intervention, the corollary is that the revolutionaries will, thereby, not be strong enough to deal with imperialism when the time comes. Therefore, the argument then flows that we must oppose imperialist intervention – the unstated premise being that the revolutionaries’ call for help is itself illegitimate. A rape victim may not be strong enough to repel a stronger attacker, but the need to call the bourgeois police is nonetheless concrete and obvious. That need is independent of whether her inability to repel her attacker means she will be too “weak” to deal with the sexist cops and courts in a way satisfactory to our program of women’s liberation. How she deals with the cops and courts remains to be seen, but she first has to survive to even get to the courts at all. Nor does our decision to call the cops rest on whether it further legitimises, and sows illusions in, the bourgeois state. Supporting the NATO intervention cannot hinge on such secondary considerations. Just as it could not in the demand for Australian/UN forces to intervene in East Timor in 1999. Concrete issues are at stake in a real-life mass struggle. Revolutions are awfully practical things. We can not dole out our solidarity according to whether and how they meet our programmatic conditions.

By opposing the NATO intervention right now, we risk paying lip-service to the Libyan revolution while undermining it in deed. Those who do so fail the all-important question of what to do next.

[Marce Cameron edits Cuba's Socialist Renewal. He is an activist with the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS) and president of the Sydney University Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Club.]