Support Libyan Rebels While Opposing U.S./NATO Intervention
MHI here discusses the reasons for its opposition to the U.S./NATO bombing of Libya, as well as discussing our support for the rebels there and in the other ongoing revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. We think it is important to take a position on the difficult and contentious issue of military intervention; waffling, as many Left groups have done by failing to take a firm stand on U.S./NATO intervention, hinders the development of both theory and activity that can actually aid revolutions. Our position rejects the false alternatives of “taking sides” and attempts instead to sharpen and develop the dimension of liberatory ideas and action. For a minority position within MHI on these issues, see Libya and the Left in the Forces of Revolution section below.
Whereas mass movements in Tunisia and Egypt, at the beginning of this year, won their revolutions to overthrow entrenched dictatorships relatively quickly, other Middle Eastern and North African countries are locked in longer struggles marked by much bloodshed and many reversals of fortune. Thousands have been slaughtered in mass demonstrations and rebellions in some 19 countries, and the struggles continue.
In Libya in particular, the rebels have sometimes appeared to be on the brink of success and at other times on the brink of being eradicated. Libya’s dictator for 42 years, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, has vowed to kill every rebel, and is doing so wherever he is able. Much of the rebel movement asked the UN to establish a “no-fly” zone in order to stop Qaddafi from bombing his own people and from flying in mercenaries and supplies. The UN passed a resolution in support and NATO proceeded to implement a “no-fly” zone; it has been bombing Qaddafi forces since March 19. Government-held and rebel-held areas of the country keep changing hands, while more and more civilians and rebels are killed.
A “Youthquake” in the Middle East and North Africa
The success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in deposing long-time dictators inspired the masses to rise up in Libya as well as in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and elsewhere, and it caused renewed anti-government demonstrations in Iran and Iraq. Thousands of unarmed civilians are risking their lives every day attending demonstrations, even in tightly-controlled Saudi Arabia. Many civilians have taken up arms; some soldiers and government officials have changed sides. Called a “youthquake” because so many protesters and rebel fighters are young, the demands for democracy and equality of citizens, and often for women’s rights and for secular states, have changed the face of the region forever. (You can find a lot of information about the new movements on websites such as Al Jazeera-English (http://www.livestation.com/channels/3-al-jazeera-english-english) and Middle East Report (http://www.merip.org/)).
Never again will dictators and Western diplomats be able to justify Eastern dictatorships by invoking the old notion of “Orientalism,” the view that non-Western people lack the desire or will to fight for national or personal freedom. Months before Osama bin Laden was killed, his reactionary brand of “revolutionary” un-freedom was proven unpopular with the Muslim masses, who have an entirely different vision of the future. What will happen to the new revolutions remains to be seen, since a change in regime does not guarantee a change in people’s lives or by itself prevent the re-establishment of repression, and the economic problems facing most of the countries in the region are staggering. But we note that Egyptian youth who insist that the military give up its “interim” rule are still occupying Tahrir Square, and they swear to do all they can to move the revolution forward.
Of course, it is impossible to know the aims of all the elements among the Libyan and other rebels; certainly there are Islamist fundamentalists among them. Apparently even the CIA doesn’t know, and you can bet that they have operatives on the ground trying to find out and are hedging their bets by funding more than one group of rebels. This should not prevent us from taking a principled position in support of the rebels and against Qaddafi and the other rulers, as we do. Our position, however, does not require that we support U.S./NATO intervention.
Disputes over Military Intervention in Libya
Within the U.S. and internationally, disputes are raging over whether the U.S. role in Libya (both individually and through its virtual control of NATO and the UN) constitutes naked imperialism, designed to preserve U.S. oil and strategic interests, or whether it constitutes humanitarian aid that is warranted because the dictator is so evil and the threat of mass killings so imminent. As was the case during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, some support U.S. intervention either on the humanitarian grounds of saving lives, or because they believe U.S. intervention will turn the tide in favor of the rebels. “Humanitarian intervention” is sometimes condemned as being pro-U.S. government, but that is not always the case. People who oppose intervention are often accused of supporting the dictators involved, but that is not always the case either. There are supporters of Qaddafi who oppose intervention based on a position that boils down to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend;” we call such thinking “knee-jerk anti-imperialism” and have frequently condemned it for resulting in support of repressive regimes (one place is our editorial “We Support, We Condemn“). Other Leftists take more nuanced positions, but still feel that ultimately they have to choose between supporting intervention in order to support the rebels, or opposing intervention on the grounds that U.S. imperialism is the “greater evil” in the world.
MHI refuses to choose among any of the above positions, which we consider false alternatives. We firmly support the Libyan masses who are striving for freedom, but we do not conflate their needs with any actions of the U.S. government. We hope people-to-people solidarity will help them to obtain material aid to carry on their struggle, and we are sorry that at this moment, we are not able to help except through the power of the pen, but we believe that ideas are also important for the future of revolutions.
When Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascist forces were fighting to take over Spain in the 1930s, people around the world who were opposed to capitalism and oppression sent international fighting brigades and provided other support to help the Spanish people defend themselves. We lament the fact that this kind of support for the Libyan rebels is not now an immediate option. But we do not believe that foreign intervention by the U.S. or other major powers is ever justified––not just because imperialism is wrong in principle, but for reasons we discuss below.
In brief, we believe that when Leftists take as their focus the actions of the U.S./NATO, they are downplaying the agency of the Libyan rebels and their ability to shape their own destiny. Whether it is meant to save lives in the short run or to turn the tide of a revolution, intervention by the U.S. affirms that it is the only force that can make history, and Left support of intervention indicates its agreement with that view. The Left itself loses an opportunity to develop its capacity to provide its own material support for rebels, as well as losing an opportunity to develop a perspective that is not tied to any state power. In other words, we believe the Left should take a position that sharpens and develops the dimension of liberatory ideas and activities, and thus contributes to the dialectic of history.
Who Cares What Position U.S. Leftists Take?
One could say that no one cares what position U.S. Leftists take, because the Left is too weak to influence events. Be that as it may, the Left still has good reason––in fact an obligation––to analyze and inform people of its views. Specifically, it has an obligation to work out its views on the basis of what will aid the needed world revolution. Because only the end of capitalism and the beginning of a new mode of production and new human relations that flow from that can substantially and sustainably change the way ordinary people live, we need to evaluate every position in terms of what is needed to make that happen.
We oppose U.S./NATO intervention not only because imperialism is bad for the country invaded (even where it might have a desirable result in the short run), but because military intervention strengthens the might and the influence of the intervener. When the intervener is the U.S. or its proxies, it is especially important to take a position based upon what will help to bring down this strongest pole of world capital. For revolutionaries, our main enemy is always at home—our own ruling class—and our main focus is to weaken its power, for the sake of our own working class and, in the case of the singularly powerful U.S., for the sake of the workers of the world.
U.S. intervention in Libya strengthens its control over other countries––others as well as Libya––by serving notice to the world that the U.S. will continue to employ its military might whenever and wherever it wishes. Since all governments represent and serve the underlying economic systems in their countries, the U.S. military serves and preserves capitalism—above all, by maintaining a stable environment for investment and finance. If another severe financial crisis erupts, capitalism can survive only if there is confidence in the debt guarantees of the U.S. government, and U.S. military might is key to such confidence. We in the U.S. believe in fighting our government’s power at every opportunity.
War and Imperialism: Our History
Our position that people in the U.S. should strive to weaken U.S. power follows the logic of a perspective articulated by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the leaders of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and continued by Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism. All three wrote that the duty of revolutionaries in imperialist countries during wartime is to contribute to the defeat of their own governments.
During World War I, a war among European imperialist countries, Lenin argued that the military defeat of the Russian tsar was desirable because it would give impetus to a revolution at home (“On the Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War”). His slogan was, “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war.” And that is precisely what happened, when the Russian Revolution followed on the heels of Russia’s defeat.
On the eve of World War II, Trotsky published “A Step towards Social-Patriotism: On the Position of the Fourth International toward the Struggle against War and Fascism.”  It is a response to a Palestinian Trotskyist group’s document calling for the Fourth International to take a position in support of those countries fighting Hitler. Both articles discussed whether Lenin’s “defeatist” position was applicable in light of Nazism. The Palestinians wrote that pursuing a defeatist policy was “hardly … possible” in 1939 because “Fascism … so strangles the working class [in fascist countries] as hardly to make it possible to comply with Lenin’s third condition for defeatist policy,” namely “the possibility of giving mutual support to revolutionary movements in all warring countries.”
Trotsky disagreed. He did not give up on the possibility of international solidarity being able to create the possibility of revolution. There also seems to have been an under-current of questioning by the Palestinians as to whether a defeatist position is the right position even if it is tenable, because immediate circumstances might make it the wrong position. Trotsky’s response characterizes them as arguing that “fascism nowadays represents a direct and immediate threat to the whole civilized world” (emphasis added). And the final paragraph of his response contains the following characterization of their thinking: “‘But fascism might be victorious!’ ‘But the USSR is menaced!’ ‘But Hitler’s invasion would signify the slaughter of workers!’ And so on, without end.”
In his response, Trotsky did not dispute any of those dangers. He affirmed all of them: “Of course, the dangers are many, very many.” But he argued against basing decisions on such considerations. Fighting only the immediate threat is “a narrowing down of revolutionary tasks.” “That policy which attempts to place upon the proletariat the unsolvable task of warding off all dangers engendered by the bourgeoisie and its policy of war is vain, false, mortally dangerous. … It is impossible not only to ward them all off, but even to foresee all of them. Should the proletariat attempt at the expense of the clarity and irreconcilability of its fundamental policy to chase after each episodic danger separately, it will unfailingly prove itself a bankrupt.” We agree.
Moreover, such a position surrenders the possibility of an independent path, one that is not tied to one or another pole of capital because it is forever “chas[ing] after each episodic danger separately.” The central question that needs to be asked––and answered––is: do we hold fast to fighting for what we are for, or do we get sidetracked by this, that, and the next crisis, about which we can do nothing immediately, onto a path of supporting rulers who are fighting the immediate threat, the immediately “greater evil”?
If we allow the immediate situation to determine our response for us, then another path, independent of all capitalist powers and solutions, never has the opportunity to develop, since the “episodic danger[s]” are never-ending. And so we become bystanders to history. And much worse, we recommend that potentially revolutionary forces also become bystanders, taking sides from among that which is immediately given to them, i.e., the sides that others, capitalist powers and forces, have constructed as “the sides.”
Trotsky’s response ended by alluding to the danger of reducing the working class to the role of bystanders to history, or what he called “supervisors of the historical process”: “The workers will be able to profit to the full from this monstrous chaos only if they occupy themselves not with acting as supervisors of the historical process but by engaging in the class struggle. Only the growth of their international offensive will put an end not alone to episodic ‘dangers’ but also to their main source: the class society.”
Raya Dunayevskaya, like Trotsky and the Trotskyists of her time, refused to take sides in World War II. While many Leftists supported the Allies because fascism was so horrendous, she insisted that neither side should be supported by the Left. Our task, she repeated, was to defeat our rulers at home. Her advice to young men on serving in the military was that revolutionaries should serve—in order to organize fellow soldiers around socialist ideas.
International working-class solidarity is likewise possible now, and indeed, the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have made it easier to envision. To think that the only choice is to be for or against U.S./NATO intervention effectively subordinates the Libyan masses’ struggle to the strategic interests of the U.S. It also reduces the role of the Left to that of being bystanders to history. Whether or not it can immediately give material aid, the task facing the Left is to think our way out of the false alternatives and “lesser evils” presented by bourgeois thought, and instead to call for a path that fosters and develops revolutionary movements. This may require us to do some hard thinking and historical digging, but that is the way we can make a contribution.
Intervention and its Practical Pitfalls
The U.S. has directly and indirectly intervened in Libya for a very long time: U.S. Marines landed in Tripoli during the Barbary Wars at the beginning of the 1800s. Libya was a colony of Italy for decades; the U.S. maintained military bases there for years until Qaddafi seized power in 1969 and kicked them out. In response to Qaddafi’s sponsoring of terrorist attacks in Europe, in April 1986 the U.S. sank Libyan boats and bombed alleged missile sites and Qaddafi’s compound. This military action broke the “Vietnam syndrome” that had halted overt U.S. interventions, and heralded the coming unipolar world filled with U.S. invasions of many countries.
Dunayevskaya immediately denounced the bombing and warned that it was a prelude to President Reagan’s intensification of attempts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government and to stop other revolutionary movements in Latin America and the U.S. (“Reagan’s attacks on Libya and Nicaragua,” News & Letters, April 1986, page 1). She did not live to see all the interventions that followed. The bombing also impelled her to write to us about the duty of revolutionaries to be immersed in revolutionary philosophy so as to be prepared to analyze rapidly whatever new events occur in the world (letters dated March 27 and April 10, 1986).
In 1999, Qaddafi was miraculously rehabilitated as a respectable leader by the U.S. government when he decided to play ball with the West and renounced terrorism. No doubt the U.S. was in no hurry to see him fall in 2011, as long as he was cooperating with its policies, any more than it wanted to stop supporting Mubarak in Egypt. It did not stop supporting either one until it saw that the revolts could not easily be put down, and eventually stopped supporting them simply so it could be on the winning side.
History shows that the U.S. government’s kind of “humanitarianism” cannot be trusted to last. Instead, the masses will have to control their own revolutions if they are to control their countries afterward. U.S. military aid to mass revolts is too unreliable and its price is too high. But even were that not the case, intervention does not necessarily bring about military victory—as witness Qaddafi’s ability to retake much of the area he had lost to the rebels, in spite of U.S. and NATO bombing. What do supporters of “humanitarian intervention” advocate in such cases?
U.S. military intervention removed oppressive governments in Iraq and Afghanistan––at the continuing cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives and the sacrifice of the peoples’ right to determine their own futures. What is the conceptual difference between an invasion by troops, and one by planes, missiles, and drones in the air and CIA agents on the ground? And how should we decide who deserves the U.S.’ “humanitarian” help? Millions have died in Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, and other places where the U.S. government did not chose to “help.” We know the U.S. isn’t going to intervene where its relations with a current government are deemed crucial to U.S. interests. At this moment, it is doing nothing to support the masses rising up in Syria, a country of 22.5 million people compared to Libya’s 6.5 million, because Syria has greater importance for U.S. interests. So what principle governs our support for humanitarian intervention? Why do those who support it refrain from advocating that the U.S. intervene to protect innocent lives everywhere and always?
What Underlies the Acceptance of False Alternatives?
We worry that the failure of the Left to consider more than the false alternatives that our rulers have constructed for us indicates that many people have given up on the possibility of an actual world revolution that overthrows capitalism and thereby abolishes imperialism. Why else settle for narrowing the content of your support for revolutionary movements to the choice of whether to support or oppose your own government’s military actions?
Although MHI is too small to offer material support to revolutionary movements abroad, we can help them by developing ideas about what a thoroughgoing social and economic revolution entails. We believe that such a revolution is possible, and that worked-out revolutionary ideas are themselves a force that is needed in order to make that possibility a reality. Otherwise, there is no reason for the Left to exist, since the false alternatives of “taking sides” between given choices are already firmly established in existing society. We believe our role is to demolish false alternatives, not to perpetuate them, and instead to show another direction, that of revolutionary thought and activity.
 New International, Vol. 5, No.7, July 1939, pp.207-210, transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol05/no07/bulletin.htm
 The group functioned in the British-controlled territory that the British called “Palestine”; the majority of its members were Jews.
 The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, Wayne State University Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Detroit, Mich., Supplement, pp. 11003-11007. Copies available from MHI and on microfilm in some libraries.