Fall of desperate regime

Anti-imperialism does not equal pro-Gaddafi, argues James Turley

As it threatened, briefly, to do this spring, the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi has collapsed. The forces previously known as the Libyan rebels have seized power in most of the country, including the capital, Tripoli - assisted, of course, by months of aerial bombardment by Britain, France and America.

Gaddafi's fall, though hardly completely unexpected, nonetheless took place with surprising rapidity. The civil war, which had raged ever since Nato support lent some kind of military muscle to the rag-tag rebel forces, looked for months to have reached a point of stalemate. Frustration was evident at all levels of the imperialist establishment; all the signs of debilitating mission creep (a UN resolution aiming ostensibly to prevent a massacre in Benghazi having given way rapidly to an open-ended mission to topple Gaddafi) were there, easily recognisable from the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters.

At least the belligerents were fully behind those misadventures; with the exception of Nicolas Sarkozy (in dire need of a 'Falklands moment'), David Cameron and a rather lukewarm Barack Obama, no other Nato leaders were able to muster much in the way of material or even political support to the bombing campaign. Outgoing US defence secretary and lifelong military-industrial apparatchik Robert Gates was driven to a caustic attack on the uneven commitment of Nato's member-states - not only to the Libyan mission, but to the equally ill-defined purpose of the alliance itself in the post-cold war era.

Now, suddenly, 'major combat operations are at an end'. I use the famous phrase of George W Bush advisedly. His regime was so hubristic and irrational that there is every reason to suppose that he genuinely thought that the 'hard part' was over in Iraq. The west may have shrunk away from sending in the cavalry this time around, and may hope that the relative lack of foreign 'boots on the ground' (except, of course, special forces and 'advisors', for whom different rules apply) will genuinely buy them some local goodwill.

Yet any sane imperial strategist will see many different possible outcomes, most of them disastrous. The best-case scenario for the US and its allies is a relatively orderly transition to a relatively stable government in the pockets of the west. The Transitional National Council will form the core of this new government; the state will have to grant some democratic concessions (given that it was, after all, a rebellion among a substantial section of the popular masses against Gaddafi's tyranny that started the whole farrago), but not enough to threaten western interests.

The TNC is a motley coalition of academics, liberals, royalists, Islamists and ex-Gaddafi cronies who saw which way the wind was blowing. It is perhaps not the perfect Party of Order, but strange times make for strange bedfellows. Any stable regime to come out of it would necessarily entail significant restrictions on political freedom, if not to the degree enjoyed by Gaddafi; and it would have to sufficiently placate key constituencies of the rebel forces, not least the Islamists and tribal leaders. Given the ideologically protean character of Gaddafi - who claimed to be a pan-Arabist, a pan-Africanist and a pan-Islamist - it is likely that his erstwhile henchmen will have no problem adapting in particular to Islamism.

For even this to hold, it will be necessary for the rebels and Nato to wipe out the remaining pockets of support for Gaddafi, and ideally round up not only the man himself, but also those of his family members who still remain in Libya, particularly his sons, Saif, Mutassim and Saadi.

If any of these conditions are not met, the pressure could split apart the rebel coalition. In particular, a tidy end to what remains of the civil war is critically important: a split could then result in complete chaos after the fashion of Lebanon in the 1980s. In spite of the parade of ruling class triumphalism, this possibility is clearly not too far from the minds of our rulers - David Cameron has already mooted the possibility of 'peacekeeping' troops (yet more mission creep), and a leaked UN document proposes a few hundred unarmed military 'observers'.

Propaganda war

For now, however, the imperialists can be said to have won the propaganda war. Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama have bombed Gaddafi out of power; the rebels, in some cases desperate for survival and in others keen for career advancement, have been reliant upon them militarily, and (for the moment at least) reliable as allies. Compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, at this early stage the Libyan campaign looks clean, (relatively) economical and effective. Perhaps most importantly, no western squaddies have returned home in body bags.

This poses the question of the left's tasks and its response thus far. Marxism is resolutely opposed to imperialism, the main enemy of the international working class movement, combining oppression and exploitation of entire peoples - a nexus of all the abominable practices of capital and the state.

Sometimes - as with the Iraq war - imperialist adventures enjoy only ambiguous support from the outset, and Marxists have a large reservoir of discontent to tap into. In other cases, such as the continuing debacle in Afghanistan, broad support decays ultimately into almost complete opposition. As regards Libya so far - and, previously, in the Balkan conflicts - the left has had to constitute itself as almost the lone voice of disapproval, which, of course, only makes a principled anti-imperialist stance all the more necessary.

In fact, in broad terms, we have acquitted ourselves well. Among British left groups, only the Alliance for Workers' Liberty broke the ranks of opposition to the Nato intervention - quelle surprise. The AWL has already published a guardedly ecstatic article under the headline, 'Libya: the return of hope' (Solidarity August 24).

The unsigned piece is full of the usual complement of AWL dirty tricks - wildly overstating the repressive character of the Gaddafi regime (no better or worse, in reality, than most dictatorships); condemning those who took a straightforward anti-imperialist stance as being trapped in "nihilistic defeatism", while carefully avoiding any clear statement one way or the other itself; and the occasional lapse into straight-up delusion ("the Nato intervention helped [the rebels] by preventing the crushing of the uprising at a critical point", we are told without a trace of irony, as if that was the sole effect of six months of aerial bombardment).

As for the opposite temptation - varying formulations amounting to support for, or a 'united front' with, Gaddafi - that perspective has been more marginalised perhaps than at any point in recent memory. Socialist Worker (September 3) - ran one article on Nato's cosying up to ex-Gaddafi henchmen, and another rubbishing the 'radical' pretensions of the old despot. The 'international' of the Socialist Party in England and Wales has likewise refused to allow opposition to Nato to lead them into the Gaddafi camp. Even the nominally orthodox-Trotskyist Workers Power, in theory committed to an 'anti-imperialist united front' in such situations, came out broadly with the same line (not without internal ructions on the matter). Only the most dogmatic clutches of Trotskyists and sundry Stalinist elements can be found siding to any extent with Gaddafi.

This is encouraging, and a change from the days when CPGB comrades would be howled down, in particular by SWPers, for raising broadly similar politics in relation to Iraq, Iran and so forth. It remains, however, basically on the level of instinct - an instinct in the past which has disastrously led sections of the left to fall in behind whoever happens to be against the US in a given theatre of conflict.

It remains to be theorised - and theorising it as such means ditching any and all conceptions of the 'anti-imperialist united front'. The idea, which has many versions with many names differing only in nuance, is for communists to throw themselves wholesale into the military struggle against imperialism, cooperating wherever possible with those bourgeois nationalist forces also in revolt; by doing so, the communists both aid the defeat of imperialism and break support away from the bourgeois forces by being 'the best fighters'.

There are two kinds of objection to this thesis. The first is empirical: to put it bluntly, this policy has failed, with remarkable consistency throughout its entire history, everywhere it has been tried. In several cases, it has resulted in physical liquidation of the left (as in the Iranian revolution). No matter what the crystalline clarity of the Comintern's and Trotsky's statements on this question, a track record like that demands some kind of re-examination.

The other objection is theoretical. Capitalism is imperialist from the get-go - a state gains advantages by jostling for position in a world order dominated in the last instance by its hegemon (currently the US). The national bourgeoisie's disputes with the metropolitan countries are important to communist tactics, but fundamentally tactical, and it is frequently the case that nationalist forces would rather risk defeat than allow impudent communists to pilfer their mass support by agitation in the ranks. Considered from the class perspective, this is a perfectly natural response.

Communists instead must win the working class to take an independent position on burning democratic questions like those afflicting the semi-colonies. This is a fortiori the case for those 'in the enemy camp' - that is, the imperialist countries - where the various Trotskyist formulations of anti-imperialist united fronts and so forth amount to slightly ridiculous postures of the 'armchair general' type.

This is not merely an academic issue with regard to Libya. Decades of dictatorship have left this country with almost no working class organisation at all (the working class itself is small). As they have in Egypt, ruling elements will seek to push the country to an election in just enough time for it to be successfully rigged in favour of western interests. The working class cannot do anything without organisation - it must prise open the space to organise, win the maximum political freedom and (crucially) seek arms, in order to prepare for any number of depressingly likely worst-case scenarios. Then, perhaps, something can be salvaged from this bloodbath.