Why we should not denounce intervention in Libya, by Sean Matgamna

March 30, 2011 at 9:30 pm (africa, AWL, Jim D, Marxism, Middle East)

By Sean Matgamna

An individual, a group, a party, or a class that “objectively” picks its nose while it watches men drunk with blood massacring defenceless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive. (Leon Trotsky)

The would-be left is yet again tying itself in knots over a false political dilemma: the belief that in order not to give general support to the British-France “liberal intervention” in Libya, they must stridently oppose them on this and on every specific thing they do. Or at least on every military action. In fact it is a dilemma of their own making.

Of course, socialists should not give positive political support to the governments and the ruling capitalists of Britain, France, the USA, or the UN, in Libya or anywhere else. Even when what they seem to be doing may, or is likely to, produce desirable results, they act for their own reasons, not ours.

Of course, their “humanitarian” concern to prevent Qaddafi murdering the Libyan rebels is not unconnected with their concern for Libyan oil. Of course they are hypocrites. Of course they operate double standards. Of course, we should not give them political credence or endorsement for anything they do. Of course we cannot trust them to do what they say they are doing and only that.

Of course the no-fly zone on Qaddafi might in certain conditions develop into invasion and occupation. Wars escalate, combatants respond to situations they did not foresee. Of course, political logic unfolds according to its own needs and the interests of the big powers.

In 1882 the Gladstone Liberal government occupied Egypt “temporarily”, and then Britain remained there for 70 years, until 1952. To give them support would be to repeat the experience in relation to Iraq of those who ardently backed the Americans in Iraq. In other words it would be stupid and,for revolutionary socialists, politicaly self-destroying.

Nevertheless, we have to look at a situation as it is. The UN, with Britain and France as its instruments, has set very limited objectives in Libya. There is no reason at all to think that the “Great Powers” want to occupy Libya or are doing other than a limited international police operation on what they see as Europe’s “southern border”. The bitter lessons of their bungling in Iraq are still very fresh to them.

What they are doing now has prevented, for now at least, the immediate fullscale massacre that Colonel Qaddafi threatened to inflict on his opponents, to whom he vowed “no mercy”. In the name of what, then, should we oppose what they so far are doing in Libya? In the name of what alternative should we have told them to stop using air power to prevent Qaddafi massacring an incalculable number of his own people? That is the decisive question in all such situations.

So,why? We tell them to stop preventing Qaddafi killing his own people, because we think it is alright if he kills his own people? Because we are pacifists pure and simple and oppose military action of any sort in any conditions? Because we positively want Qaddafi to re-establish control in all of Libya? Because actions that might in themselves appear good are not really “good” if they are carried out by those we rightly distrust and want to overthrow? Because it is a principle in all circumstances to defend the self-determination of any state against intervention by outside stronger states? Because we have slogans like “troops out” (of wherever) that are outside of history and circumstances; which we worship as a fetish?

Obviously, this is to reduce the whole question to absurdity. Or rather, it is to bring out the logic of the would be left’s belief that they have got to oppose France and Britain, whatever the consequences.

From any humanitarian, socialist or even decent liberal point of view it is desirable that the Qaddafi forces, trained military personnel and mercenaries, should not be allowed to slaughter the comparatively unarmed and untrained rebels they have in their sights.

It is not necessary to believe that Britain and France are certain to do good. But it is possible, and necessary, to separate certain actions of such powers. Some things they do are, from our point of view, desirable and should not be “opposed”. Our stand of rooted class opposition to them does not require that we oppose and condemn everything and anything that they do. Take an historical example.

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1808. Britain did not abolish slavery in such colonies as Jamaica for 30 years more. This was a Britain in the hands of the corrupt oligarchy that opposed the American democratic republic of that time, had opposed and fought the French revolution, and was at war with post-revolutionary France. The motive of the ruling class was by no means pure and simple. Yet Britain did make war on the slave trade at sea. It stopped ships in which large numbers of human cargo were packed like sardines; ships whose masters in bad weather or when the need for speed became predominant routinely threw large numbers of living slaves overboard. That was good work, whatever the motives of Britain. Recognising that it was good work does not commit anybody to the retrospective backing of Britain against Napoleonic France or against the USA with which it again went to war in 1812.

left arguments

The arguments deployed by the left groups whose starting point is that they have to oppose Britain and France whatever they do, show the foolishness of such a posture.

To justify opposing not occupation, which, if it were to come, socialists would surely oppose, but this limited police action to stop massacre, the Socialist Worker website carries a laboured list of the ruling class’s hypocrisies, double standards, etc, and indicates possible bad consequences — maybe occupation, etc. It even lets itself deploy the idiot argument that to bomb Qaddafi’s strongholds “would kill innocent civilians”. That, as an argument for opposing action aimed at stopping very large scale massacres! It is an example of the political self-negating, self-killing, of people who are in politics terminally confused!

At the end of the day, their posture comes down to opposition to whatever the main imperialist bourgeoisies are doing. No matter what. Much that they do, most of what they do, should indeed be opposed. But to equate our long term, rooted, class opposition to these powers with deep opposition to every specific thing they do is not to be independent of them, but to be their slavish mirror image.

From the unrefined impulse to oppose whatever they do or say, the would-be left here ends up being utterly foolish. And repulsively irresponsible. The last thing this is is independent working class politics.

Or coherent anti-imperialism.

On this question, the left, and in the first place the SWP, is hamstrung by its own recent history.

When in 1999 the Nato powers undertook a police action to stop a Serbian drives to massacre and drive out the Albanian population of Kosova, Serbia’s long time colony, the SWP and others started an anti-war movement which focused entirely on the demand to stop bombing Serbian installations, which was the coercion used to force Serbia to withdraw from Kosova.

In that situation, they sided entirely, and consciously, with a Serbian regime engaged in an attempt at genocide. (See Workers’ Liberty 55, April 1999)

It is impossible to find a clearer example of the lethal consequences of negativism on principle, rather than independent working class politics that look critically and independently at what is going on, and whose proponents think about the issues and do not do the political equivalent of paint by numbers in concocting mindless and often reactionary “anti-imperialist” politics.


  1. Morto Che Parla said,

    “Of course, their “humanitarian” concern to prevent Qaddafi murdering the Libyan rebels is not unconnected with their concern for Libyan oil.”

    Funny, just the other day your blog was ridiculing that very suggestion.

    Is it not a sign of a “worm-eatem while still alive” political organizaiton to be incapable of acknowledging perspectives which they themselves agree with, when these are stated by their opponents?

  2. charliethechulo said,

    “Is it not a sign of a “worm-eaten while still alive” political organizaiton to be incapable of acknowledging perspectives which they themselves agree with, when these are stated by their opponents?”

    Ehh? Talk sense, Morto and we’ll answer you. meanwhile continue to get your kicks wanking over strong-man Gaddafi’s attacks on the rebels.

    • Morto Che Parla said,

      I think it’s quite easy: this blog, in its political-smear mode, recently laughed at the suggestion that by opponents of the attack on Libya, that oil could be a motivation.

      But in its “theoretical lefty” mode (which is pure discourse, of little relevance in your real poltiics), you acknowledge that oil is “of course” a motivation.

      I wouldn’t have thought this is especially hard a point to understand chulo.

  3. jim denham said,

    We at Shiraz (specifically, myself) have criticised the standard kitsch-left / Morning Star/ STWC idea that it’s all down to oil. If that was the case, the “West” would be quite happy to stick by Gaddafi. I don’t think I’ve ever stated that oil has absolutely *nothing* to do with the situation.

    And I think you, Morto, need to decide whether you’re in gloating over the “victories” of your hero Gaddafi, or in “theoretical” mode…

    Btw: a good “theoretical” deabte here: http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/03/20/libya-no-illusions-west-%E2%80%9Canti-intervention%E2%80%9D-opposition-abandoning-rebels

  4. Matt said,

    I hadn’t read this section of Trotsky’s ‘Learn to Think’ for a while, h/t to Sacha for pointing out its continuing relevance:

    “Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

    At the same time, the French maritime workers, even though not faced with any strike whatsoever, would be compelled to exert every effort to block the shipment of ammunition intended for use against the rebels. Only such a policy on the part of the Italian and French workers constitutes the policy of revolutionary internationalism.

    Does this not signify, however, that the Italian workers moderate their struggle in this case against the fascist regime? Not in the slightest. Fascism renders “aid” to the Algerians only in order to weaken its enemy, France, and to lay its rapacious hand on her colonies. The revolutionary Italian workers do not forget this for a single moment. They call upon the Algerians not to trust their treacherous “ally” and at the same time continue their own irreconcilable struggle against fascism, “the main enemy in their own country”. Only in this way can they gain the confidence of the rebels, help the rebellion and strengthen their own revolutionary position.

    If the above is correct in peace-time, why does it become false in war-time? Everyone knows the postulate of the famous German military theoretician, Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This profound thought leads naturally to the conclusion that the struggle against war is but the continuation of the general proletarian struggle during peace-time. Does the proletariat in peace-time reject and sabotage all the acts and measures of the bourgeois government? Even during a strike which embraces an entire city, the workers take measures to insure the delivery of food to their own districts, make sure that they have water, that the hospitals do not suffer, etc. Such measures are dictated not by opportunism in relation to the bourgeoisie but by concern for the interests of the strike itself, by concern for the sympathy of the submerged city masses, etc. These elementary rules of proletarian strategy in peace-time retain full force in time of war as well.

    An irreconcilable attitude against bourgeois militarism does not signify at all that the proletariat in all cases enters into a struggle against its own “national” army. At least the workers would not interfere with soldiers who are extinguishing a fire or rescuing drowning people during a flood; on the contrary, they would help side by side with the soldiers and fraternize with them. And the question is not exhausted merely by cases of elemental calamities. If the French fascists should make an attempt today at a coup d’etat and the Daladier government found itself forced to move troops against the fascists, the revolutionary workers, while maintaining their complete political independence, would fight against the fascists alongside of these troops. Thus in a number of cases the workers are forced not only to permit and tolerate, but actively to support the practical measures of the bourgeois government.

    In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.”


  5. sackcloth and ashes said,

    OK, so when ‘the West’ (and no one else) did business with Qadafi, it was all about oil. And now ‘the West’ is supporting his internal foes, it’s also all about oil.

    I think it’s a safe bet that if OP ELLAMY hadn’t happened, and Qadafi butchered the people of Benghazi, clowns like ‘Morto’ will be bleating about UK Plc’s complicity in mass murder?

  6. jim denham said,

    Mark of AWL reports:

    “I went to the start of the StW rally ‘Hand off Libya’ in Conway Hall last night to leaflet and sell papers.
    It seems to me that these facts are pretty significant: when it was due to start there were only 80 people in the room, almost all old white people (CND/Labour types); there were almost no Arab people there.
    I talked to about a dozen people in 25 minutes and – despite the title of the meeting – some of them openly admitted to being ‘torn’ or ‘deeply uneasy’ about the demand to stop the bombing; about half openly agreed with us. I sold 3 papers.

    There’s a real opening here to educate the left about the meaning of anti-imperialism; the SWP/Counterfire position is a staightforward contradiction – Stop the bombing! Victory to the revolution! – it is blindingly obvious to all. Which makes them very vulnerable.
    At least the Maoist sect handing out leaflets that read: Stop the bombing! Victory to Gadaffi! is consistent.
    Suggest people start on every leftist you can find with one question: do you want the insurgents in Libya to win? That opens up the discussion in a way that just fucks anyone who is honest..”.

  7. info@publique.co.uk said,

    Socialists who fail to support a revolution are traitors
    Socialists who support Qaddafi are his henchmen
    Socialists who do not stand with the ordinary people are not socialists

    Hang the Henchmen


  8. War, and class war « Poumista said,

    […] So starts Sean Matgamna, in his recent intervention on intervention. […]

  9. charliethechulo said,

    For some really mad stuff (Israel behind it all, etc), conspiracy theories, “all about oil”,etc (including a loony comment from childrens’ author and SWP apologist Michael Rosen), have a look here:

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