You are useful idiots

The imperialist assault on Libya has rallied many on the liberal and socialist left in its defence. James Turley argues that this makes an anti-imperialist perspective even more urgently necessary

The Arab uprisings of the last few months have, on the whole, had the effect of wrong-footing imperialism in a most dramatic way. It is true that the US had embryonic contingency plans in the event that its favoured strongmen should fall; but it is equally true that these plans turned out to be woefully insufficient. The discomfort of the White House and its allies was plain for all to see.

That said, it was inevitable that the west would attempt to regain the initiative somehow - and, however much they may have been at sea when dealing with a great explosion of unrest in foreign climes, our governments have more than enough tricks up their sleeves in order to win acquiescence from their own populations.

The attack on Libya, then, was an expertly chosen opportunity to reassert imperialism’s flagging political and moral authority in the region. As soon as it became clear that the rebellion centred on Benghazi was likely to fail - with the distinct possibility, at least, of being drowned in blood - the pieces all fell into place. Here was a country, ruled by a man who can only be described as slightly unbalanced, edging towards a massacre - and only a revised version of the ‘coalition of the willing’ could stop it.

This is not, then, a repeat of Iraq; the closest analogue in recent history is the Nato campaign against Serbia in 1999. That crisis was difficult for the left to negotiate as well; it is disappointing, but not surprising, to find many willing again to provide left cover for the imperialists in the Libyan case. After all, many of the Libyan rebels themselves ended up pleading for a no-fly zone - a key component of arguments in the aggressor countries for setting one up.

A disclaimer: though I will argue that this position is as wrong in Benghazi as it is in Birmingham, it is not as treacherous in the former, where people could look forward only to a bloody demise in the absence of some kind of deus ex machina. Those who disgracefully claim that this request for western assistance ‘proves’ that the whole rebellion was a CIA plot all along do themselves, and the Arab masses, no favours. One cannot confuse a desperate cry for help with a rationalised apologia.

Left apologists

Surveying the left forces in support - however mealy-mouthed - of the imperialist intervention, one meets some new faces and, as it were, some old friends. In the former camp, we can place Gilbert Achcar, the Lebanese-French academic who has made a name for himself as a vocal critic of imperialism. Achcar is a long-time supporter of the Mandelite Fourth International, and he was interviewed in that organisation’s periodical International Viewpoint, where he argued that, while anti-imperialists should be wary of their governments’ intentions in Libya, they should stop short of opposing the imposition of a no-fly zone.

“There are not enough safeguards in the wording of [UN resolution 1973, which authorised the attack] to bar its use for imperialist purposes,” Achcar says. All the same, “given the urgency of preventing the massacre that would have inevitably resulted from an assault on Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces, and the absence of any alternative means of achieving the protection goal, no-one can reasonably oppose it”.[1]

Achcar’s interview provoked a storm of controversy - unsurprisingly, given that most of those familiar with and supportive of his work thus far will know him as a staunch anti-imperialist. He has since penned an extensive reply to his critics which goes into more detail on his position, but without dealing with its fundamental weaknesses. This time round, he starts by tantalising us with ‘what if’ scenarios from history - would it really have been so bad if the imperialists had gotten together to stop the Rwandan genocide? Was the United States and British war effort against Hitler - however many hideous crimes it involved - really deserving of automatic opposition? We will come to the fundamental problem with such arguments in due course - for now, it will suffice to note that exactly the same two examples are wheeled out by more run-of-the-mill ‘cruise missile leftists’ on every occasion, from Afghanistan to Iraq to ... Libya.

Achcar is keen to stress that there were very compelling reasons why the imperialists did not intervene in the Rwandan case, and indeed he is correct to do so. Fundamentally, however, this is besides the point for him - this time around, the stars are aligned; the machinations of imperialism for once match up with the needs of the masses.[2]

Given Achcar’s record, which if anything has occasionally pushed him too far the other way into borderline third worldism (he is, after all, a Mandelite), we can perhaps call this position a ‘wobble’ rather than a lurch into full-blown social-imperialism. The same cannot be said of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, which began edging into this territory decades ago, and has barrelled into it at some pace since the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.

The AWL supported (though it would prefer the meaningless term, ‘refused to oppose’) the intervention into the Kosovo war, declined to call for troops out of Iraq at any point during that misadventure (though it finally got around to a ‘troops out of Afghanistan’ position a year or two ago, and therefore a mere eight years late), supported the deployment of US troops to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake last year ... the list goes on.

With that record, Libya was never going to be an exception for imperialism’s useful idiots - and, sure enough, as the campaign for a no-fly zone built up a head of steam, its paper, Solidarity, published an article under the ham-fisted headline, ‘“Yes to Libya”, not “No to the USA”’. In substance, the position of this article is similar to Achcar’s, beginning, as he does, with a reminder of imperialism’s self-interested motivation: “Socialists should not give a blank cheque to US or British military intervention ... Their history and their nature mandates an attitude of complete distrust to the US and British military.”

Proving that “complete distrust” is ever in short supply at AWL headquarters, however, the author (‘Chris Reynolds’, an old nom de guerre of AWL ‘number two’ Martin Thomas) asks: “But is it our job to try to stop the implementation of a no-fly zone, or the delivery of weapons to the anti-Gaddafi forces? Should we do as some on the left do, and hoist ‘No imperialist intervention’ to the top of our slogans about Libya, downgrading ‘No to Gaddafi’? No.”

Unlike Achcar, the AWL does not credit the likelihood of a more extended intervention in Libya to secure control of oil reserves; and, while Achcar trots out fantasy situations about Rwanda to bolster his case, Reynolds uses the frankly bizarre example of the no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan as a model of imperialist massacre prevention.[3] With a certain dreary inevitability, the group’s patriarch, Sean Matgamna, has now put his two-penn’orth in - full of Matgamna signature moves, such as wilful misrepresentation of opponents, and long strings of increasingly unhinged rhetorical questions. The argument is basically the same as Reynolds’, only this time the ‘model intervention’ is ... Kosovo.[4]

Fundamental errors

The convergence of Achcar and Matgamna on this question is striking, partly because of the deep differences between the two on every conceivable level. Their respective political records, as noted, diverge enormously - particularly on the question of Israel; but it should also be noted that they reach the same destination by very different theoretical routes.

Achcar’s anti-imperialism, despite his Marxist heritage, tends towards liberal support for the underdog; there is oppression, and we should oppose it as much as a moral reflex as anything else. Neither of his articles, barring an epigram from Leftwing communism on the second, look very much like they could not have been written by a left liberal. The AWL, meanwhile, is very proud of its overt workerism; a key component of its argumentation over Iraq was that it was easier for workers’ organisations (principally trade unions) to gain a foothold under a US occupation than under the ‘clerical fascist’ regime that would replace it in the event of a forced withdrawal.

What these positions have in common is a tendency towards short-termism and localism. The critique of imperialism is not, in the first instance, about individual spectacular acts of state repression engendered by the US and its allies and clients. It is about a system which encompasses the globe and has such violence at its very core; and a system which has strategies that persist through time. Both Achcar and Matgamna argue on the basis that the fundamental question is whether there will be, if you will, a massacre in Benghazi next Tuesday afternoon. That is their fundamental error.

In reality - as Achcar, but not the AWL, concedes - imperialist intervention in Libya cannot be conceived as a one-off ‘police action’ to halt Gaddafi’s advance. The basic military facts of the case do not support this interpretation - unless the imperialists get involved in a more substantial way than they already are, the only possible result is a protracted and bloody civil war which will make the hypothetical rout of the rebel stronghold look like a day out in Disneyland. Given Libya’s social fabric - a large, sparsely populated country with a heavily tribalist tilt to politics - such a war would leave it looking like contemporary Afghanistan. Some kind of US-brokered ‘peace’ deal would put off this eventuality rather than prevent it.

But even this is too small a scale to consider the problem. The context, as noted, is the whole wave of Arab uprisings. The importance of Libyan oil should not be too drastically understated, but the primary motivation behind the intervention is to change the dynamic of the revolutionary wave in the Americans’ favour. The no-fly zone (and let us not kid ourselves with the wording here - it is a generalised military assault on Gaddafi’s forces) is the sharp end of a very dubious plan to neutralise a revolutionary wave that has targeted primarily allies of the imperialist countries (Gaddafi, until a few weeks ago, included).

That, in the end, is why the various counter-examples provided by the AWL are disingenuous. The Kurdistan no-fly zone is commended to us, as if it was not part and parcel of a sanctions regime that killed up to a million people. The intervention in Kosovo is presented, again, as a ‘police action’ to end Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, rather than the bloody campaign it was, integral to the larger project of ensuring the subservience of the former Stalinist world to US and west European interests. Imperialism does not do one-offs - the AWL does not seem able to grasp this at all. For all its appeals to the ‘concrete’ circumstances of this exact moment, its view is precisely abstract - the concrete must by definition be considered as part of the whole and in interrelationship with other phenomena, not plucked out of nowhere and examined in isolation from the world.

Of course, this abstract presentation of the issue is not an innovation of the AWL (or Gilbert Achcar); it is simply borrowed from the way it has been presented in bourgeois politics and the media - a straight choice between an atrocity and a western intervention. For all its attempts to hedge its bets with talks of no “blank cheques” and “complete distrust”, the AWL has already accepted the terms of debate wholesale. As soon as it did so, social-imperialist conclusions were inevitable. This is also the story with its other political errors on this front - Iraq, Kosovo, etc.

Our tasks

So the question is not whether, on the one hand, we turn a blind eye to the west or, on the other, consign the Libyan rebels to the tender mercies of Gaddafi’s forces.

The rebellion has already failed to topple Gaddafi’s state; should it succeed now, riding on the back of the great powers, then the democratic content that act would have had otherwise will be wholly subverted. When revolutions fail, reaction is very often bloody and horrific; but the Libyan dead are a few among many millions of martyrs to the democratic and revolutionary aspirations of the masses. They will not be the last. (Unfortunately, now that imperialism has gotten involved, there will be many more of them.)

As noted, Achcar begins his second intervention with a Lenin quotation, on Brest-Litovsk and the occasional necessity of compromises with imperialism. Quite so - but Achcar confuses compromise with capitulation. A compromise is something that is forced upon us, not something that we willingly embrace. Achcar’s position amounts to cheerleading, albeit of the most guarded and cautious type.

In any case, it is too late to stop the west going into Libya. If the comrades are serious in their opposition to imperialist ambitions beyond altruistically preventing massacres, then they need to get on board now and help build a forthright opposition to the US, British and French actions as a whole. That is one lever we can get our hands on - undermining the ability of our own states to interfere in the Arab democratic upsurges. It is a much tougher sell than opposition to the war in Iraq, with the ruling class generally united behind the Libyan intervention - but that simply makes it all the more necessary, now of all times when we are practically alone, that the far left does not waver in its opposition to imperialism.

Winning the mass of workers to a defeatist position - or at least keeping the position alive in public discourse - would not only help prevent our rulers from doing more harm than they already have, but keep the way open for the Arab spring to claim more tyrants as victims.


  1. internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2038
  2. www.zcommunications.org/libya-a-legitimate-and-necessary-debate-from-an-anti-imperialist-perspective-by-gilbert-achcar
  3. www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/03/09/yes-libya-not-no-usa
  4. www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/03/23/should-we-denounce-intervention-libya