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.
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.