No united front with Gaddafi

Those who are waiting for a 'pure' opposition will wait forever, writes James Turley

In the last Weekly Worker, I attacked those on the left who imagined that the imperialist intervention in Libya was, or could be, somehow to the profit of the masses of that country.[1] In the same issue, comrade Gerry Downing illustrated the opposite error - of opposing the anti-Gaddafi rebellion itself.[2]

I said ‘opposite error’ - not ‘equal and opposite’. Soft-soaping imperialist meddlings in the countries of the periphery is about the most egregious error it is possible for a communist to commit, and it is the duty of all of us to cleanse our movement of such illusions. That comrade Downing avoids this is to his credit. Unfortunately, he has fallen at the next hurdle.

Orienting the working class movement correctly involves highlighting the international dimension of all struggles. The dynamics ‘on the ground’ in particular countries are of great importance, of course, for revolutionaries, principally revolutionaries in those particular countries; yet our project is doomed if it is not international, and thus does not tackle in a principled, democratic and consistent way the malign consequences of the division of the world into competing states.

supporting imperialism is one, particularly harmful, error in this regard - because imperialism thinks and operates internationally itself. In the case of Libya, it is clear that the ambitions of the American, British and French governments extend considerably beyond the borders of that country; and support for their operations on the basis that otherwise there would be a massacre of anti-Gaddafi forces amounts to philistine short-termism.

Other failures of principled internationalism are possible. One broadly derives from Trotskyism - in the event of an imperialist attack, it is necessary for the forces of the working class to enter into a united front with the belligerent opposed to the immediate imperialist attack. This is posed in numerous ways, most clearly by the Spartacist League and its descendants as the policy of ‘military support’, as opposed to ‘political support’ (the latter caveat, if not explicit, is nonetheless present in Gerry’s perfectly accurate criticisms of Gaddafi).

The primary source is in Trotsky’s writings of the 1930s: thus, for example, he excoriates leaders of the Independent Labour Party for calling the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) as a “conflict between two dictators”. Trotsky wrote: “If Mussolini triumphs, it means the re-enforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of [Selassie], however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism, but at imperialism as a whole and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”[3]

The bulk of comrade Downing’s article is an extremely unflattering portrait of the rebel forces - engaged in racist pogroms against black African migrant workers; riddled with pro-imperialist elements, former Gaddafi-regime functionaries and al-Qa’eda; and utterly bereft of any progressive content at all. If this is a little one-sided, to say the least, it does contain an element of truth: there have been racist pogroms, and the Islamist presence is more widespread in Benghazi than it was in Tunisia or Tahrir Square.

The problem is that it is equally true, at least, of Gaddafi’s regime. If he has not specifically massacred groups of migrant workers, he has hardly been coy about delivering death to the Libyan opposition - even before things degenerated to the point of a civil war. If the opposition is coloured by tribal politics and reactionary Islamism, that is a fortiori the case with Gaddafi, who has exploited tribal allegiances and religion in order to keep any single element of society from becoming powerful enough to challenge his rule. The swift and efficiently brutal response to the initial uprising testifies to his success in this regard - this is the most serious crisis his regime has suffered, with high-level defections, the mass absconding of his diplomats and all the rest.

As long as Gaddafi and his regime sit atop Libyan society, opposition movements will inevitably be coloured by this reactionary agenda. There has been no space for the working class to organise openly on a mass basis since before his accession to power. If comrade Downing wants to wait for a “pure revolution”, as Lenin put it, he will wait forever. As it is, in his jeremiads about the malign influence of Islamism in Libya, he - irony of ironies - ends up sounding a lot like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (which, this time around, has deemed it appropriate to park its usually implacable opposition to all things ‘clerical fascist’).

As such, despite the reactionary forces involved (which by no means are defining it), the mere fact of a rebellion is a positive, progressive development. Marxists, since Marx, have always been ready to exploit any divisions in the ruling class for the benefit of the masses - it will suffice to cite Lenin’s famous dictum that a revolutionary situation happens when the rulers cannot rule in the old way, and the masses will not be ruled in the old way.

The ‘Arab spring’ seriously weakened Gaddafi’s hold on power simply by taking place - there is no way, with hindsight, to argue that the Libyan rebellion was not premature; yet something like it will have to happen before the working class and rural masses of that country can begin to push an agenda which is authentically their own. The correct response is not to abandon the rebellion for Gaddafi, but to purge it of the reactionaries who have, as reactionaries do, slimed their way to the top, and truly take ownership of it.

Downing is very keen to distance the Libyan events from the uprisings surrounding it - a geographically implausible separation, given borders with Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. His argument on this point is precisely, as we have seen, to paint the Libyan rebels as political reactionaries. The truth is, however, that by the time Mubarak actually fell in Egypt, a great many of his closest flunkies had switched sides, just as Gaddafi’s did; and, while the very much better organised workers’ movements in Egypt and (especially) Tunisia have played a more prominent role in their respective uprisings, that was never going to be the case in Libya, where traditions of working class organisation are simply much weaker.

In trying to draw a line between Egypt and Tunisia on the one hand and Libya on the other, Downing ends up in the theoretical dead end we highlighted earlier - he considers the Libyan movement in isolation from the general political shifts in the region (we might call it ‘methodological nationalism’, in the sense of ‘methodological individualism’ in the human sciences).

In fact, that broader context should give Libyan leftists and democrats cause for optimism in the longer term; the reactionaries who have claimed leadership of their revolt, and consigned it to oblivion by meekly allowing imperialist intervention, may yet be swept away on the revolutionary tide sweeping the Arab world.

Such an eventuality recedes ever further into the distance with every Nato bombing raid, of course; the Benghazi regime becomes increasingly supplicant before the great powers, which in turn strengthens the latter’s hand against any more radical elements in the movement. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s hand is also strengthened, as he can once again paint himself a brave anti-imperialist warrior. As such, I am sure comrade Downing and I agree that the primary task of communists in Britain, France, America and other belligerent countries is to fight for the immediate end to all Nato military action in Libya.

Where we part company, to put it mildly, is on the consequences of this task. For Downing, “any principled revolutionist would have taken a united front stance with Gaddafi, not only against the imperialist open assault, but also against imperialism’s internal agents”. This Trotskyist canard, the anti-imperialist united front, runs into difficulties in almost any conceivable application - the trouble with anti-colonial nationalists is that they tend to be either reactionaries or Stalinists, neither of which are particularly prepared to enter into a “united front stance” with revolutionary Marxists.

In this case, its absurdity is apparent. In the name of anti-imperialism, comrade Downing argues not only for propping up a dictator who, after all, has managed to schmooze his way into imperialism’s good books before, in the face of an immediate military assault. He argues for giving him the leeway to maintain an oppressive state apparatus in order to root out CIA spies. Of course, there will always be such spies - that is what the CIA does. Toppling Gaddafi is put back to such time as the forces opposing him are as pure and clean as the driven snow - we will wait forever for that.

In fact, exposing the shady manoeuvrings of imperialist agents is not counterposed in any way to destroying Gaddafi’s regime - indeed, the tasks dovetail perfectly. CIA agents can only do their dirty work effectively if the means exist to conceal their operations. Such people are trained well in the black arts of gaining access to influential positions in bureaucratic state regimes. Placing political power genuinely in the hands of the masses has the side effect of shining a light into the shadows where spies and saboteurs like to hide.

This is true on a larger scale too. The one thing imperialism fears more than anything else is the further spread of these Arab revolts - its favoured strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia have gone, and the enthusiasm with which Saudi Arabia both participated in the Libyan attack and simultaneously deployed troops to suppress demonstrations in Bahrain testifies to the monarchy’s deep unease. Should Gaddafi be run out of town by his own people, that will only spur this movement onwards. It is the initiative of the radicalised masses that our rulers fear the most - and that they have intervened to strangle at birth in the Libyan case. It is not the job of revolutionaries to pour cold water on such radicalisation.

Genuinely implacable opposition to imperialism does not mean a “united front stance” with whatever petty Bonaparte happens to fall foul of the US and its allies at a given moment. It means overthrowing them all.


  1. ‘You are useful idiots’ Weekly Worker March 31.
  2. ‘No defence of Benghazi’ Weekly Worker March 31.
  3. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/britain/v3/ch02i.htm