When Revolutionaries Ask For Help


One month ago, the series of protests and uprisings that have become known as the "Arab Spring", reached Libya, with protests erupting across the country, and taking hold in the major Eastern city of Benghazi. Days later the Eastern half of the country had ousted local Gaddafi forces, and also taken over Western cities such as Mizrata. From high-profile dissidents and Gaddafi government defectors, a national transitional council was formed, with some degree of representative council structure established among different regional groups. They quickly began asking for arms, diplomatic recognition, and the imposition of a no-fly-zone across the country.

Journalists who had by now reached the various and autonomous rebel forces — simply groups of people with AK-47s and Toyota trucks — found a widespread desire on-the-ground for the same thing, especially a no-fly zone. They found no appetite for actual land-based intervention, and they also found some groups who wanted no outside involvement at all. But overwhelmingly, every journalist (including those working for papers opposing external involvement) found a genuine rebel force, who wanted military help to counter the superior firepower of Gaddafi’s forces.

This situation created a dilemma in the West, particularly among the group known as the "anti-war left" — those who had opposed the Iraq invasion, and ongoing involvement in Afghanistan, where the unilateral application of external force had been clear. They had been emboldened in an anti-involvement position by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, in which mass action had deposed a dictator in one small country, and then done the same to an army-supported strongman in a much bigger one. With their use of mass non-violence against thuggish brutality, and smart social media against dumb old-skool power, they appeared to usher in a new way of doing radical change.

Then came the Libyan uprising, and reminded everyone that it doesn’t always happen like that — and that such changeovers not only rely on a degree of consent by those being rebelled against, they also limit the radical nature of the change. Egypt’s uprising was a triumph, but it would be wrong to overstate its impact within the country — it was in part a petition to the army to remove Mubarak, and in that respect, did as much to confirm army power as to destabilise it. In Libya, the people faced something else — a decadent and decayed leader, wielding a sclerotic and corrupt state apparatus, and determined to stay in power. One didn’t have to buy into the "mad-dog" Gaddafi rhetoric to see that his regime was a sealed and isolated one, and that Gaddafi had for many decades been a mercurial and unpredictable leader, combining utopian schemes with brutal repression and police-state torpor.

He was not going to go without a fight — and more importantly, the fight to remove him would take on a more determinate historical character than in other places, in which a resort to force made possible and necessary a repudiation of the whole apparatus, the whole intersection of power and social life. This was a revolution — and the revolution wanted help. Not expressions of solidarity, marches, benefit gigs, or Arab-chic Twibbons; it wanted our national air forces to shoot down planes, blow up guns and tanks on the ground, with inevitable civilian and military casualties.

For non-western revolutionaries this wasn’t in the script. Hitherto, they had always been rebelling against the West, or its client leaders. Anti-war movements in the West supporting them were also anti-imperialist — it was our way of materially supporting people trying to break out of global power structures. Throughout the Cold War those doing exactly that could get support from the other side — the idea of appealing to Washington or Brussels rather than Moscow for armed support was unthinkable.

Now western governments were being appealed to for active support, and not merely by a client-elite government-in-waiting, but also by fighters on the ground. In the West, argument about the pros and cons of involvement appeared to turn on two different principles — some were arguing that western governments should become involved to protect civilians from Gaddafi, others that they should be actively helping the revolution to victory. Both types of involvement, though quite different acts (and different to the unilateralism of the Iraq war), became spoken of under the general term of "intervention".

In the early stages of the Libyan revolution this prompted a firm response from that section of the "anti-war" left — the bulk of it, indeed — that also defined itself as "anti-imperialist", arguing that international relations was not an interaction between states of various character, but a system of domination by a global capitalist centre, around the US and the EU. In the first flushes of the Libyan revolution, the anti-imperialist left was able to say that any form of western involvement would be a corruption of the process, designed to hold it back, limit its radicalism, and impose client leaders.

That argument was made consistent by simply ignoring the demands of many of the rebels for external military support, and this issue became urgent when the military situation reversed, and Gaddafi’s forces began to advance back into Eastern Libya. Very quickly they took outlying towns and cities, and were poised to advance on Benghazi itself, which would have snuffed out the revolution. A resurgent Gaddafi, living up to Western caricatures resplendent in aviator shades and a woollen ear-flap hat, announced that those who continued to resist in Benghazi would be singled out; revenge would be taken "house by house, room by room".

At this point, the dual character of western involvement became material rather than merely a point of debate. Had Gaddafi not made his threat regarding Benghazi, textbooks of international law would have had to make it up, as a debating example of the "responsibility to protect" doctrine promulgated by the UN in 2005. A "humanitarian" intervention overlapped with potential support for a rebel army. It was the former cause that allegedly brought the US into the process, after earlier marked reluctance. Now President Obama’s advisors Susan Rice and Susan Powers insisting that the "responsibility to protect" doctrine had come into force — a departure from the earlier, French-dominated process, which had involved the recognition of the revolutionary process, and of the transitional council as a de facto government.

The threat to Benghazi led to the UN Security Council resolution that the western powers had wanted as a condition of becoming involved. Yet though involvement was now on the pretext of a limited humanitarian protection, it became clear that the real operation was in the character of supporting a revolution; "protection" became extended to the idea that Libyan civilians couldn’t be protected while Gaddafi remained in power.

That was complicated enough, but then the revolution got stuck; after a quick rebirth, the recapture of the east, and an advance along the coast road to Western sector of the country that began with the city of Sirte, rebel forces became bogged down as Gaddafi’s troops rallied. Debate quickly came to be centred on a series of military questions of utmost speculation — were the rebels a rabble? Were NATO forces exercising excessive restraint and failing to wipe out Gaddafi’s armour, and so on. It also gave credence to the notion that this was not actually a revolution, but a civil war based around regional and possibly ethnic divisions.

The anti-involvement position firmed up in a specific manner, by eliding one distinction, and emphasising another: by their account, succinctly expressed in Mark Steven’s article in New Matilda last week, any differentiation between western intervention and other forms of military involvement was false, while a distinction between revolution and civil war was vital and total. For Steven, any external involvement turns "revolutions into civil war", and a notion of revolution was being "being coalesced into a lexicon of duplicitous euphemisms and political weasel words".

Trying to stay this side of snide, one can say this about Steven’s piece — that it is the most concise expression of an approach to the issue that is so manifestly self-contradictory that it registers the failure, and exhaustion, of a certain type of politics, and it therefore serves as a point of prime differentiation.

At the core of Steven’s piece, as was at the core of much anti-involvement argument, was one simple assumption: that there would never be a contradiction between an anti-imperialist analysis of global power, and an expression of solidarity with rising-up peoples across the world. In the Libyan revolution that came to an end — the Libyan people wanted heavy firepower on their side, and they were happy to take it from the West.

That didn’t fit the script at all, and various attempts were made to square the circle. Initially it was said that the Libyan revolution was so successful that any involvement was simply designed to hold it back; this was tendentious in the extreme at the start, and by the time the rebels faced a genuine military emergency, it was simply a self-serving propagandistic lie. A second attempt was made to find groups within the revolution who opposed foreign involvement — this initially focused on one banner hung in a Benghazi square calling for "no intervention", and saying that Libyans could handle it themselves; however it appeared impossible to find anyone who would claim the banner or advance the arguments on it; the transitional council’s initial statement that they wanted no foreign involvement "on Libyan soil" was fastened on to, until it became clear that the statement was meant literally — they didn’t want troops on the ground, but they did want support.

The continued and repeated demands for military support, and the increasing and manifest desperation of the rebels’ position began to make the contradiction obvious to even the most die-hard anti-imperialist. The call for arms had actually taken notions of international solidarity at their word, and this had changed the structure of the debate about potential western involvement — quite unlike the argument around unilateral invasion of Iraq, it was now a request for someone, that is the western left, to honour the promise they had made in expressing solidarity. Initially this argument was ignored, until it became clear that it was such an obvious breach of commonsense morality (everyone knows that promises should, in general, be kept) that it required an answer. And there were various answers — aside from some non-statements about "building international solidarity movements" instead of co-operating with imperialist states.

For some, the legitimate notion that people have to make their own revolutions, became extended into a fetishisation of national borders — countries like a cage match. For others, the request was itself contradictory, and true solidarity was to advise them of the folly of this request. Going down this path turned the position of "anti-imperialism" from a political into a religious one: imperialism was not an ensemble of forces in constant movement and contradiction, but a free-floating malign force, involvement with which always ended disastrously.

To argue this demanded some pretty spectacular historical ignorance about the way imperial forces have been used to assist revolutions — from US air support for the 1986 overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, back through Tito’s use of US and UK support in taking over Yugoslavia, Bose’s collaboration with the Japanese to create the Indian National Army, Ho Chi Minh building up the Viet Minh through involvement with the US, back to the Bolsheviks’ extensive collaboration with the German general staff in making the October revolution, and all the way back to French support for the American revolution.

Once you ignored the way in which successful revolutions had drawn on imperialist forces in winning victory, one could smuggle all sorts of metaphysical baggage into a materialist assessment of politics. Revolutions that became involved with imperialism were "tainted" from the start, they were infected somehow with its bloody past. At its extreme this became a process of lecturing Libyans on how much import they should give their own history — didn’t they know that they were the first place that air power was used for colonisation, in 1911? That the Italians had killed 20 per cent of the population? 

All of this was in service to one goal — the idea that a request for military support by way of solidarity was essentially malformed, a logical error, and therefore placed one in no moral bind by not honouring it. There was a particular intensity to this for many people and groups on the anti-imperialist left for one major reason — having for years expressed solidarity with the oppressed and fighting peoples of X and Y, they had essentially drawn their energy from that notion of solidarity. Prior to the 1990s, that form of energy flow had been the preserve of that part of the left usually identified with left nationalist or Maoist sympathies — most groups who made up the "anti-imperialist" left scorned their attachments to guerrilla war, third worldism, and its accoutrements as a retreat from the central struggle in advanced industrial countries of the West.

In the 1990s however, such groups began to pay far more attention to such struggles, and to identify with them more visibly. There’s no doubt that there was genuine human sympathy and solidarity at the base of such an impulse, but another reason was uppermost — the simultaneous end of the Cold War, and the rapid de-industrialisation of the West was removing the central images of struggle that made a political identity possible. Such groups had once been injuncted to dress as the people among whom they were organising (or trying to). Weird hair, etc. was banned. Now that too came to be abandoned as a new political identity was projected. For the anti-imperialist left, the 90s and 2000s increasingly became the age of the keffiyah, the scarf that acquired magic powers when worn by white people.

The keffiyah is one mere detail, but it expresses much of what was got out of an expression of solidarity: connection with visible and visceral struggle. As radical politics in the West became increasingly a business of trying to give an extra oomph to liberal causes — refugees, gay marriage, etc. — any sense of delineation as a revolutionary process went out of it. Elsewhere revolution was real, as measured by its bloodiness, chaos, contradiction and energy, and infused western politics with a meaning that had otherwise leached out of it.

So it is that very claim that makes the Libyan revolution so dynamite. For now that revolution is here — a genuine violent popular uprising with no easy resolution, and no way of concluding in an Egyptian style Foursquare/Tahrir Square fusion. It creates, as do all genuine revolutions, a breach between past and future — the latter cannot be read off the former because various elements have come into a new series of relationships. There is an obligation not merely to the people one has professed solidarity to but also to the process itself, and the possibility that it might demand some audacious leaps of thought and advocacy.

That does not of course mean that one should abandon a position at the drop of a hat. I don’t doubt that many are sincere in combining anti-imperialism and solidarity, nor that they have done enormous good in campaigns over the decades. But any forensic analysis of this position had to see that it would come into contradiction sooner or later.

Indeed, there was a consistent anti-imperialist, anti-involvement line to be taken, and it was best expressed at the Spiked website, a group that had evolved out of one strand of the UK far-left in the 1990s. But Spiked had also never drawn on notions of international solidarity in the manner of left groups — indeed, it had gone out of its way to criticise ways in which western left groups engaged in a projection of politics into more traditional struggles elsewhere. Its anti-involvement politics was an expression of the insistence that such proxies obscured the real need to remake politics in the West, and allowed the zombie categories of a dead Marxism to walk the earth.

That, regrettably, is what sections of the anti-imperial left do far too easily, creating an anti-imperialist metaphysics from which a series of positions can then be rattled off. Some of these strike outsider as inexplicable — the notion that Australian involvement in East Timor was an imperialist intervention to protect the interests of Australian businesses. There are many things to say positive and negative, about that intervention, but the notion that it was to enforce economic interests on a dirt-poor subsistence and cash crop island is nonsensical — unless you’ve been imbued with the anti-imperialist metaphysic within which it all makes sense.

In Mark Steven’s piece one can see that tendency in the easy set of definitions he offers, through which the messy and sprawling notion of a revolution can be interpreted. Thus:

"This is because revolutionary triumph is primarily the result of an ideological war of position — only after the success on that front should revolutionaries engage in a militarised war of manoeuvre. What made the Egyptian uprising so effective was that the military seceded from the government to align its strength with the people — that the war of position came before military manoeuvres."

In other words, we shouldn’t even consider supporting the Libyan rebels ‘cos they didn’t do it right. The fools — they thought that revolution was about taking whatever opportunity presented itself to rise up, in courage and audacity. Instead they should have checked the textbooks, and got their "war of position" on. Given their hopeless blundering, one can only stand by and watch them cut to pieces, and hope they take some more Gramsci classes next time.

No doubt there are some people who are now regretting their support for external involvement in Libya. I’m not one of them. Once it had been established that the request for support was well-founded, from a mass movement, against a violent and repressive regime, it was necessary to advocate that that support be given. There was no abstaining — to not speak, to fail to advocate was to make a choice, the choice to refuse a solidaristic request, based on any number of arguments. That did not guarantee that the revolution would success, nor that it would be free of squalid or chaotic failure. Indeed one interesting feature of opposition to support of the revolution was how unwilling many on the western left had become to countenance that it was a fight which might involve death. It was as if every revolt had to have a guarantee — that its support was so utterly massive, so total, that resistance would be perfunctory.

This seems to be the logic in Steven’s claim that civil war occurs when intervention is applied to a revolution. The hard and fast distinction is a false one — and another way of avoiding uncomfortable truths. Revolutions have always involved degrees of territoriality and affiliation — and what is noticeable in Steven’s argument is the utter absence of any consideration of military threat or situation. Apparently what was of greatest threat to the uprising was not that its final position, Benghazi, might be overrun, but that Western presence might sully it. Apparently it is better to lose purely, than to become bogged down in a stalled military process. It is, if you prefer the noble defeat and death of others, to the messy and contradictory strategy to fight that they themselves have selected, given the limited options offered them by circumstance.

The ultimate absurdity of this is Steven’s suggestion of what’s really wrong with the Libyan revolution — it’s not a different revolution. The revolution other revolutions used to be accused of falling short of was the 1917 October revolution. More recently it’s become the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804. For Steven this is the ideal type — where unarmed slaves overthrew an empire and ended slavery "all without the help of a no-fly zone". Nice story, pity it ain’t true. In fact, the Haitian revolution only survived after 1791, because it was supported by radical elements in the post-revolutionary legislative assembly in Paris. In its second stage, from 1793-4, Touissant L’Ouverture allied his Haitian forces first with the Spanish, before switching sides and fighting on the side of the French. In 1801, L’Ouverture declared the island’s autonomy, and Napoleon despatched a force to get it back. France ultimately failed, because its ability to apply full force to the island was limited. Why? Because the British had imposed a naval blockade on the French navy in the area — which sounds like the 19th century equivalent of a no-fly zone to me.

Personally, I think comparisons with earlier historical events are always of limited usefulness — especially if you’re looking for some ideal type to adhere to. But of you’re going to, you should at least find a revolution that hasn’t had outside help, and relied on some rotten deals — if you can find one.

In the meantime, the rest of us will have to grapple with two separate questions — what are the demands of genuine solidarity, and where do they stop, when a people are rising up? And under what circumstances does one support external military action to protect directly threatened civilian populations? Those who want to withdraw to simple formulae of anti-imperialism are welcome to do so, but they should ditch the cant about solidarity, if they’re not willing to do the one thing, at the one time it is asked for, for people for whom it is a matter of life and death.


Like this article? Register as a New Matilda user here. It’s free! We’ll send you a bi-weekly email keeping you up to date with new stories on the site.

Want more independent media? New Matilda stays online thanks to reader donations. To become a financial supporter, click here.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.