Libya, imperialism and ALBA

A Libyan rebel walks past a military position decorated with the rebellion flag at the southern entrance to Benghazi. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images.

[For more coverage of Libya, click HERE.]

By Barry Sheppard

March 27, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – The struggle in Libya cannot be analysed except in the context of world and especially US imperialism, as I am sure all will agree. But its also cannot be analysed solely in terms of Libya itself in conjunction with the role of imperialism in that single country.

What is the context in which Libya must be placed? Or to put the question another way, could the civil war in Libya and the US military assault have happened four months ago? Of course not. Neither were even remote possibilities in anyone’s mind four months ago.

The context is the great Arab uprising which has taken the world and all of us by surprise. The fundamental thrust of this uprising of millions has unfolded from country to country against military dictators and monarchies. The immediate demands everywhere revolve around democracy and an end to arbitrary police rule with its imprisonment, torture and murder. The rulers in every country the rebellion is directed against were backed by imperialism, with the partial exception of Syria. In the case of Syria, however, the regime’s relations with imperialism have been cosy enough that it accepted prisoners under “special rendition”, and dutifully tortured them. So even Syria is part of the special relations these countries have with imperialism.

Libya under Gaddafi beginning in the 1990s became part and parcel of this system of imperialist domination. Whatever his anti-imperialism amounted to in his past is just that – the past. He made his deals with European and US imperialism at first through oil and gas, and then sealed the arrangement in 2004 with political cement.

The unfolding of the Arab revolution is thus objectively and increasingly subjectively anti-imperialist. Washington’s system of domination in North Africa and the Mideast has been shaken. Israel’s role in this system has likewise been weakened. The Israeli ruling class feels itself becoming isolated by the rebellion, and its spokespeople are squealing in alarm. Israel is reacting by renewing attacks on Gaza and building further settlements in the West Bank, driving to consolidate its rule from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Unconditional support

Revolutionary socialists must give unconditional support to the Arab uprising. Its immediate goals in all these countries can be summed up as (bourgeois) democracy, and are 100% progressive. Its domestic enemies are for the most part agents of imperialism, and where not directly so, are complicit with it. We support it for this reason also.

By “unconditional” support I mean support not conditioned by our evaluation of the leaders of the rebellions or whether or not we have political agreement with them. That goes for Libya, too. I disagree with comrades who seem to condition their support of the Libyan rebels on more knowledge of what their program is. We must be for the victory of the rebellion in Libya, period.

In all of these rebellions, those fighting to overthrow the dictatorial regimes include different classes and sections of classes. The self-immolation of a Tunisian young man which was the spark for the conflagration reflected the situation of a whole layer of the uprisings – educated young people unable to find employment in the conditions of imperialist exploitation and crony capitalism in the most severe economic crisis of capitalism since the Second World War. This layer is part of the working class. Impoverished peasants driven off their land by imperialist penetration and capitalist development, forced into the cities to look for casual work, are another layer. Peasants remaining on the land suffering increasing hardship are another.

Employed workers who have been denied their rights to organise to fight for better wages and conditions are another. Artists and intellectuals chaffing under ideological control have joined. Other sectors have come over to the rebellion, including parts of the bourgeoisie who resent crony capitalism and crass corruption that restricts their own development. Parts of the state apparatuses and militaries of the old regimes are jumping ship.

Economic exploitation and massive poverty are clearly motivating forces behind the rebellions. These affect the great majority of the rebellious masses. Their demands will increasingly come to the fore, to the extent that bourgeois democracy is won on the ground. We can expect that to the extent that the rebellions are successful, there will be a growing differentiation between the classes and sections of the classes, which will be expressed in different political formations. Probably we will see Islamist parties. Petty bourgeois revolutionary parties. Parties reflecting the interests of the military and the old regime. Bourgeois democratic parties. And, we can hope, workers’ parties. The interests of the different classes will probably find incomplete and muddled expressions at first.

The degree of capitalist development is different in each of these countries, and has been distorted by imperialism. Thus the objective strengths of the different classes are different from country to country. In Egypt the employed working class has been fighting for some time now, organising under the dictatorship. It seems to have played a more decisive role there than elsewhere. We should learn more about the class structure in each country. Egypt may come to the fore as the leader because of the weight of its workers.

As this political differentiation develops, we will be able to see which parties and programs we support or partially support in the class struggle. We will also see which political forces we oppose. But right now to demand programmatic clarity of the rebellions to determine our degree of support to them is premature (the conditions have not yet matured) and is in fact reactionary as it plays into the hands of the dictatorships and monarchies.

Imperialism’s tactics

The battle has been joined between the millions of the Arab masses versus the current regimes. The outcome of this battle, whether victorious everywhere, in most of these countries, in some, or defeated outright will determine whether or not, or to what extent, the struggle will enter a higher phase. The stakes are high, and we should throw our efforts into winning this battle which has already been joined in bloody conflict as our immediate task. Bourgeois democracy has not yet been consolidated anywhere, and that is the first objective.

Part of this immediate task is to oppose imperialism, which is seeking to re-impose as much control as it can in the face of the uprising. Its methods of doing so include the spectrum of supporting repression of the masses on over to trying to coopt them. More exactly, imperialism’s tactics are a combination of both and are being used simultaneously.

In this regard it is useful to go back a few months to the beginning of the uprising. When it began in Tunisia, European and US imperialisms were alarmed, and sought to preserve the president and his regime. France, with close ties to the regime, paid a big political price as the uprising grew.

When it spread to Egypt, a key country for the US, the reaction was steadfast support of Mubarak. Secretary of State Clinton lauded the “stability” of his regime. As the rebellion grew, Mubarak attempted extreme violence to quell it, attacking with his political police, a huge apparatus. Hundreds were killed. Washington watched and waited, hoping this would succeed. When it did not, Obama sent his personal envoy to meet with Mubarak, who returned and said on all the TV networks that the US must back Mubarak at all costs. Obama held steadfast, rejecting calls for Mubarak’s ouster. Encouraged, Mubarak went on TV to state he would stay in power, although he wouldn’t run again in the rigged elections. The masses responded with deep anger, and the next day threatened wider attacks on symbols of the regime. US defence secretary Gates had been in close touch throughout with the regime’s top generals, who that day forced Mubarak out and set up themselves as an interim government with the full backing of the US.

Why didn’t the Egyptian generals resort to using the army to crush the masses? Of course, they would have paid a big political price to do so, as would have Washington. But I suspect that an important reason was that the Egyptian army is a conscript army, and the US and Egyptian generals feared it would split if it were used to attack the people. We had already seen many reports of fraternisation between the conscript soldiers and the demonstrators. The young soldiers had many ties to the population from which they came, and had always thought they would go back to civilian life among the people.

Throughout the Egyptian events the White House emphasised, even as it began to give lip service to democracy, that the “transition” must be “orderly” and be guided from the top. This remains Washington’s position regarding Egypt today. Indeed, it is Washington’s position everywhere the rebellion is moving forward.

In Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the Emirates the US continues to give full backing to the monarchies, including their use of repression. Of course it backs repression by its puppet regime in Iraq against mass demonstrations there, which are in fact against the US occupation.


The situation in Libya is different than Egypt. Gaddafi has repressive forces loyal to him outside the army. He has deliberately kept the army weak over his years of rule. Gaddafi was able to muster his loyal forces to attack the revolution, which had made important initial gains. He was able to crush the demonstrations, first in Tripoli and then to move against cities to the east which had fallen to the rebels. Washington and Europe stood by and watched as Gaddafi was able to use his overwhelming superiority in firepower to close in on the seat of the uprising, Benghazi. It was only then that the US and the European powers decided to attack.

All the imperialist powers of the West have been scrambling to try to retain as much control of the region as they can, and have internal debates about what tactics to use. This can explain part of the delay in opening the war against Libya. But we should also note the objective result of Gaddafi’s counter-revolutionary offensive – the infliction of great damage on the uprising, which is in imperialism’s interests.

Gaddafi’s attack on the rebellion emboldened others to follow suit. The regimes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain began massive crackdowns, with tacit support from the US. In Bahrain US defence secretary Gates met with the king’s men and a few days later forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded to back up a vicious attack on the people, and the White House pointedly refused to condemn either the invasion or the crackdown.

‘Humanitarian’ veneer

By choosing the moment before Benghazi’s fall to attack, imperialism was able to cloak its military assault with a “humanitarian” veneer. It was compelled to go beyond the “no-fly zone” rhetoric and destroy Gaddafi’s considerable armor and artillery surrounding Benghazi. If it had not done so, it would have lost all political cover for its assault. This was met with considerable relief by the rebels, of course, who had faced outright defeat. We can hope they will be able to utilise this breathing space to obtain arms. They have the right to do so from whatever source, including from the imperialists, to strengthen their hand against the regime but also in the coming struggle in which imperialism will try to impose its will as much as it can on Libya as part of its overall strategy in the region.

Imperialist war against Libya has begun. War sets in motion forces that no side foresees. Right now the US commanders are adamant that they are not backing a renewed offensive by the rebels, and nor will they provide air cover for such an offensive. But this may change if the vagaries of war go in that direction, even if that appears unlikely at present. Even then, imperialism will utilise such support to force its will on the rebellion as much as it can.

As the imperialist bombardment of Gaddafi’s ground forces around Benghazi demonstrated, “no-fly” will not be sufficient to defeat the dictator militarily. His forces continue to fight on in other cities without his air force. Even aerial bombing and massive bombardment might not be sufficient. Military experience demonstrates that boots on the ground will probably be necessary. (Let’s dispense with the clap-trap about “defending civilians”. If massive bombing and bombardment of cities under Gaddafi’s control commences, there will be massive civilian casualties – of course, these will be swept under the rug as “collateral damage”.)

It is unrealistic to assume that the present situation will continue for long. That is, that the Libyan air force will be kept grounded and the regime will continue to hold wide swaths of territory with the exception of Benghazi. The view of some that the imperialist attack can be so contained, and that at least Benghazi has been spared, is naïve, however well intentioned.

Once war has been launched, imperialism is forced to see it through, whatever the costs, or face greater setbacks, as we saw in Vietnam.

We could speculate on possible outcomes of the war. The country could be divided. The imperialists may conquer the whole country. Gaddafi could be killed or driven out by his own people and then imperialism will force a “negotiated” settlement toward an “orderly transition”, whereby the imperialists retain as much influence as they can.

Whatever the outcome, imperialist aims are to contain the Arab rebellion, including in Libya, within imperialist control as far as this is possible. We must be opposed to the imperialist war without any qualifications. It is aimed at weakening the Arab revolt.

ALBA position

What about the position taken by Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) countries? It should be noted that in general, except in the case of Libya, they have taken the side of the Arab masses. But they have done so in a lukewarm, not very enthusiastic, way. They should have been in the forefront of world opinion in vocal support of the uprising against the imperialist puppet and imperialist-complicit regimes. As a pole of anti-imperialism in Latin America it was in their interests to do so. This failure of emphasis is serious and makes it more difficult for international anti-imperialist forces to defend them.

Concerning Libya, the ALBA countries have fared worse. They have warned against the danger of the imperialist war against Libya, and to this extent we are on the same side. But on the question of the Libyan rebellion and Gaddafi we are not on the same side. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has come out openly in defence of Gaddafi’s regime. This counter-revolutionary stance undercuts his presidency in Nicaragua and opens him and Nicaragua to imperialist charges (false to be sure) that his regime is like Gaddafi’s.

Fidel Castro issued a statement shortly before the imperialist war started that contained a thoughtful review of Gaddafi’s career from his leading the overthrow of the imperialist-imposed king (like Nasser did in Egypt), initial steps taken to improve the lot of the Libyan people, his anti-communism, on up to his making peace with imperialism.

One could add to this review, but Castro’s error concerns his position on the present rebellion. Castro deplored the killing of innocents and the violence, but left the impression that “both sides” were to blame in blatant contradiction to the facts. He called for “peace” and “negotiations” between the revolution and Gaddafi’s regime.

The rebels, if defeated, may be forced into such negotiations as part of their surrender, but that is a different story, one imperialism may adopt.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez had basically the same line. This position boils down to telling the rebels to give up, and maintain the current regime with some reforms. By doing so, Castro and Chavez have placed themselves against the sentiments of the Arab masses, undercut any positive role they might have played in helping push forward the interests of the workers and exploited as the class struggle deepens in the Arab countries, and made it easier for imperialism to attack them and the process of the Bolivarian revolution. Already, CNN has posted pictures of Chavez hugging Gaddafi.

I leave aside Bolivia, Ecuador and the Caribbean countries in ALBA, because I haven’t seen what their positions are.

In my opinion, the error of Ortega and to a lesser extent Castro and Chavez lie in their not being able to make a distinction between state to state relations and political support. Libya has generous trade and other economic relations with the ALBA countries. The ALBA countries were correct to make such agreements, which strengthened them against imperialist domination. But translating these positive economic relations into political support or quasi-political support against a people’s revolution is wrong and self-defeating.

One point that Chavez raises is that the US or European imperialists want to “steal” Libya’s oil. This confusion is reflected in statements by others who oppose the imperialist invasion while supporting the rebellion. Steal the oil from whom? British Petroleum, Exxon-Mobil, the Italian oil and gas cartel and similar outfits who Gaddafi has made solid agreements with? Who have been pumping Libyan oil and gas for over a decade? Gaddafi even has a gas pipeline going directly under the Mediterranean to Italy. To be sure, they have been giving the Gaddafi family and other crony capitalists tens of billions as their cut, but they have been quite happy with the arrangement. They are not invading to de-nationalise Libyan oil by overthrowing Gaddafi. He has proven to them that he is willing to accept them as partners in any new oil or gas fields.

There is a danger to imperialist interests if the rebellion wins. The triumphant masses may want to do what Venezuela did, renegotiate the terms with the imperialists and use the oil and gas proceeds to better themselves, something capitalists everywhere hate as they do all social expenditures not in their direct interests.

These errors of the ALBA countries must not let us lower our guard in defending them against imperialism.

In defence of the Great Arab Uprising!

No to all forms of imperialist intervention!

Fight the imperialist war!

[Barry Sheppard was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party for 28 years, and a central leader for most of that time. He is the author of The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988 -- A Political Memoir.