Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends published by Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is as thin politically as it page-wise. Clocking in at 46 pages, most of the book consists of freely available published material: a reprint from PSL’s newspaper, a Dissident Voice interview with Brian Becker who is the national director of PSL’s front group ANSWER Coalition, and a historical document, the Basel Manifesto. The only original work is Becker’s essay, “Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends,” which claims that socialist debates over imperialist intervention into the Arab Spring are the modern analog to the split within the socialist movement over World War One with myself as Plekhanov and PSL as – who else? – the Bolsheviks. (Whether Becker gets to play Lenin and Mazda Majidi Trotsky or vice versa in their 1914-1917 reenactment is unclear.)
The book is a reminder that seven dollars doesn’t buy much of anything these days.
Majidi’s article, “When Justifying Imperialist Intervention ‘Goes Wrong’” is a Revleft-style response to my essay, “Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong.” Majidi’s strawmen speak for themselves and need not be enumerated here. However, his underlying method is of interest. He begins by asserting that, “All demonstrations and opposition movements [are] not progressive.” Undoubtedly this is true, and Majidi cites the Nazis and the Tea Party as examples. So far, so good. He then adds what he calls “color revolutions” to this list:
“Most color revolutions occurred in the former Soviet Republics, such as Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution. But there have also been (successful or attempted) color revolutions in other countries, such as Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005 and Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009.”
What is a “color revolution” according to Majidi?
“Color revolutions usually include the formation of coherent and unified pro-imperialist political forces, which draw upon public discontent with economic distress, corruption and political coercion. They involve several operations, including the creation of division and disunity in the military and an intense propaganda campaign. … Elements who participate in such street protests are often a small part of the population and do not represent the sentiments of the majority of the people, much less the interests of the working class. In fact, many participants in the protests may not support the agenda of the right-wing leadership and its imperialist sponsors. Still, the imperialist propaganda campaign utilizes the protests, however large or small, to promote regime change and the ascension of a client state. The imperialists are not fools to do so; this is precisely what such ‘democratic’ movements produce absent an alternative working-class and anti-imperialist opposition.”
This is a description of associated features, not a rigorous definition.
Many of these features were present in the Egyptian revolution. The “coherent and unified pro-imperialist political force” known as the Muslim Brotherhood rode to power drawing “upon public discontent with economic distress, corruption and political coercion.” Their regime enjoys a much larger and firmer popular base than Mubarak’s decrepit dictatorship and in that narrow sense U.S. imperialism was strengthened rather than weakened by the January 25, 2011 revolution.
Does PSL consider the Egyptian case to be a “color revolution”? Of course not. Thus, the only consistency to PSL’s method is its inconsistency. Eclecticism is inevitable because PSL continually substitutes description for definition.
The next step in Majidi’s counter-argument is to ask, “What is the political character of the Syrian and Libyan rebels?” Earlier in the article, he poses questions of fundamental importance for approaching this issue:
“In his entire article, Binh conveniently assumes the very thing that needs to be proven—that the Libyan rebels and the Syrian opposition are revolutionary. This false premise, once accepted, leads to all sorts of false conclusions. What is the political character of the NTC-led rebels in Libya? What qualified them as revolutionaries? How does Binh determine that the Syrian opposition is revolutionary and the government counter-revolutionary? When analyzing an opposition movement anywhere in the world, this is the first question that needs to be asked.”
The first question that needs to be asked in assessing an opposition movement is: what is it a movement in opposition to? What is the class character of the regime it is coming into conflict with and why? Imagine trying to analyze the political character Occupy Wall Street without knowing the first thing about Wall Street! Majidi makes this exact mistake by assessing the Libyan edition of the Arab Spring without first examining the Ghadafi regime in any detail. Doing this would make defending the regime from the protest movement as PSL does impossible because the regime was guilty of the very things Majidi claims define the rebellion as reactionary and right-wing: racism, collaboration with imperialism, and pro-neoliberalism.
April 4, 1977, Bengazi. PSL’s “progressive” regime lynched students (without trial) every year on April 4 to “commemorate” the anniversary of a 1976 student uprising.
Racism: Much like the Polish, Ukranian, and other national minorities of Tsarist Russia, Libya’s Amazigh were forbidden from learning, speaking, or celebrating their language and culture by Ghadafi’s regime. Those that dared risked arrest and persecution.
Becker claims “Gaddafi had a lot of support from black Libyans who considered [his] Africa-centric foreign policy to be positive” (33). Does Becker believe Black Libyans supported Ghadafi when he made a racist deal with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to keep Italy free of Black immigrants, saying, “We should stop this illegal immigration. If we don’t, Europe will become Black, it will be overcome by people with different religions”?
Collaboration with Imperialism: Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends says not a word about how Ghadafi’s regime tortured people on behalf of the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6. Nor does it mention Ghadafi’s mass expulsion of thousands of Palestinian refugees in 1995 and his call on other Arab states to follow suit.
Neoliberalism: Majidi never discusses the Ghadafi regime’s embrace of neoliberalism, so comrade Becker’s words on page 27 may come as a shock:
“Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi’s government saw the handwriting on the wall and sought its own accommodation with the West. It adopted a set of neoliberal policies and invited major western oil companies to do business again, once sanctions had been lifted by Britain and the United States.”
So for PSL, it is acceptable for a racist, tyrannical regime to collaborate with U.S. imperialism and institute neoliberal policies but unacceptable for a revolt against this same regime to have racist, collaborationist, and neoliberal elements or characteristics. What is good for the goose is absolutely impermissible for the gander. When Ghadafi made deals with British Petroleum and other western oil companies, PSL said this was understandable and justified; when the post-Ghadafi government honored those same deals, PSL labeled it a pawn of imperialism.
This is doublethink masquerading as Marxist analysis.
Still, the question remains: was it correct to assume (as I did) that the Libyan edition of the Arab Spring was revolutionary and not reactionary, progressive and not regressive? If so, how do we make sense of PSL’s charges of racism, collaborationism, and neoliberalism on the part of the Libyan opposition?
The answer to the first question goes to the very heart of what the Arab Spring is – a series of bourgeois-democratic revolutions. Unlike socialist revolutions and national liberation movements, democratic revolutions are not necessarily anti-imperialist; the pro-imperialist post-revolutionary governments in Egypt and Tunisia prove this. While the socialist revolution is principally a struggle by and for the proletariat (in conjunction with other classes and oppressed groups to be sure) against the bourgeoisie as a whole, modern democratic revolutions pit oppositional sections of the bourgeoisie against ruling sections of the bourgeoisie. PSL points to the defection of neoliberal figures like Mahmoud Jibril from Ghadafi’s regime to the side of the rebellion as proof that it was reactionary while remaining oblivious to analogous neoliberal figures like Mohammad Morsi and Amr Moussa in the Egyptian revolution and Hamadi Jebali in the Tunisian revolution. PSL does not label these latter revolutions right-wing, reactionary, or “colored.”
Again, PSL’s consistent inconsistency is blindly obvious.
Having exposed PSL’s inability to grasp that bourgeois and neoliberal forces inevitably play a prominent role in modern democratic revolutions, what of their charges that the Libyan opposition was racist against Blacks and collaborated with imperialism? Does this not invalidate the claim that the Libyan opposition was democratic in character?
Historically speaking, democratic revolutions were not anti-racist nor even consistently democratic, the American revolution in which white slaveholders and racists played a dominant role being a prime example. The fact that bourgeois-democratic rights were not accorded to Blacks in 1776 and that America’s post-revolutionary government ruthlessly exterminated the continent’s indigenous peoples does not change the revolution’s democratic character. Libya’s democratic revolution in 2011 is no different in this respect.
Libya’s Black Revolutionary Democrats
The problem for PSL and all those like Richard Seymour who saw Libya’s revolutionary democrats as little more than an anti-Black lynch mob is that they either deliberately ignored or were blissfully unaware of the significant number of Black Libyans fighting Ghadafi’s forces. This would have been impossible if anti-Black racism was the rule rather than the exception among the rebels. Southern rebel brigades made up of the Tuareg and Tebo peoples were almost all Black.
Libya’s rebels had more Black commanding officers than the Union did during the Civil War and they commanded non-Black and mixed race units.
Right: Rebel commander Wanis Abu-Khmada berates a group of rebels in the first days of the revolution for their lack of discipline.
Right: Rebel commander Abdul-Wahab Qayed. After the revolution, he was put in command of Libya’s border protection forces.
Thus, PSL’s depiction of Libyan rebels as Klansmen is counterfactual slander.
As for the charge of collaborating or allying with imperialism, undoubtedly this is true. The problem for PSL is that democratic revolutions – unlike socialist revolutions – are not anti-imperialist by definition, and there is no socialist equivalent of the 10 Commandments that forbids such collaboration on a temporary or limited basis. Majidi concedes this, writing:
“It is possible for one imperialist country, or a grouping of imperialist countries, to temporarily aid independence movements in the oppressed world in order to weaken the hold of their imperialist rivals in a different country.”
By the same token, it is possible for one imperialist country, or a grouping of imperialist countries, to temporarily aid democratic revolutions in rival states just as monarchist France aided America’s democratic revolution against British colonialism. Only a fool would conclude that independence movements and democratic revolutions in the oppressed world are reactionary because they receive temporary or limited aid from a reactionary power.
At the root of PSL’s litany of errors is their utter failure to understand democratic revolutions as Lenin and Marx did. This failure leads them to invent a distinction between the “good” Arab Spring (against pro-U.S. dictatorships) and the “bad” Arab Spring (against anti-U.S. dictatorships) instead of realizing that the Arab Spring is an internationalist struggle against all dictatorships. Every country affected by the Arab Spring saw a fight between bourgeois anti-democratic states on the one hand and bourgeois-democratic mass movements on the other; every one of these struggles and movements had and has progressive, democratic political content compared to the tyrannical governments they struggled to reform or remove.
Supporting one freedom struggle and not another is an exercise in the kind of selective hypocrisy characteristic of liberalism, as is the inability to recognize the difference between revolution and counter-revolution; PSL does both while claiming to be a Marxist organization.
PSL’s attempt to pass off eclecticism as Marxism is even more apparent in its internal documents. Richard Becker’s “A Class Analysis of the Revolutionary Upsurge in the Arab World” is a 6-page chronological summary that is as broad as it is superficial. It reads more like a Wikipedia entry than a thoroughgoing study of Libya’s development since 1969 when a bourgeois nationalist military coup ended the monarchy and inaugurated Ghadafi’s 42-year tyranny from the standpoint of historical materialism. Becker’s 277 words “analyzing” (read: describing) Libya contain no discussion of how Ghadafi imported right-less migrant labor to staff the oil industry, creating an unemployed lumpenproletariat among native Libyans, no discussion of the country’s changing class and state structures, and no recognition of Ghadafi’s impoverishment of the standing army in favor of irregular armies of snitches, spies, and enforcers dressed up as “revolutionary committees.” The national oppression of the Amazigh is invisible to Becker, mirroring Ghadafi’s racist insistence that the Amazigh people and culture simply did not exist.
Having failed to properly examine the context and the regime that gave rise to protests in Libya, Majidi moves on to sketch an alternate history of the revolution that conforms all too perfectly with his description of “color revolutions.” He uses the fact that the Libyan revolt could not beat the regime militarily in spring of 2011 as proof that it was not popular, not progressive, nor a genuine revolution; perhaps he has never heard of the Paris Commune of 1871 that was also unable to triumph militarily, or perhaps he believes the Commune to be the very first “color revolution” (orchestrated by German and British imperialists, no doubt). Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that Libya was the first instance in the Arab Spring where a capitalist state used lethal force against peaceful protests on a mass scale – the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were fortunately never tested by this kind of wanton bloodshed. Ghadafi was the bloody vanguard of the Arab Spring’s counter-revolution, and his violent escalation prompted the democratic opposition led by the National Transition Council to seek military aid from imperialist powers that previously they rejected as unwanted and unnecessary.
If anyone is to blame for NATO’s intervention in Libya, it is Ghadafi. He chose to shoot unarmed protesters en masse, handing NATO the political capital it needed to step into what began as a peaceful struggle.
Majidi goes on to argue that because the NTC did not have the “support of the entire population,” it was a fake, reactionary, unpopular “color revolution,” as if there has ever been a revolution in world history that was an exercise in unanimity! As evidence of popular support for Ghadafi, he points to a single state-sponsored rally of hundreds of thousands held in Tripoli “in the midst of the massive NATO bombing” (never mind the fact that NATO attacked only a handful of targets in Tripoli’s vicinity that day). What he omits is that Ghadafi was an unelected autocrat with an entire state apparatus (including a secret police) at his disposal to coerce people to show up, and, most damningly, that there has been not one pro-Ghadafi rally in all of Libya in the almost two years since the regime’s demise. If Ghadafi’s support emanated organically from the grassroots and not from the networks of patronage created by his regime’s oil money, this would not be the case.
Regardless of what position one took on the character of the Libyan opposition back in 2011, what is indisputable today in 2013 is that Ghadafi’s repressive bourgeois state machine was smashed and razed to the ground by the self-armed population organized in militias, that there is no secret police to terrorize the masses, that strikes, protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins are now regular occurrences, that freedom of the press and expression exist, that victims of racist oppression like the Amazigh have made advances, that unlike Kosovo NATO has no bases there, and that free and fair elections for a legislature were held to inaugurate a democratic republic. All of this is a great leap forward, a tremendous democratic gain for Libya’s oppressed and exploited that vindicates those who understood the Libyan opposition to be progressive, revolutionary, and democratic in character and serves as an irrefutable rebuke to those like PSL who slandered the opposition as monarchist(!), racist, unpopular, and reactionary.
Even stranger than PSL’s defense of racist, collaborationist tyrannies in Libya and Syria from the Arab Spring’s democratic revolutions is their assertion that today’s imperialism and the tasks it poses for socialists remain almost totally unchanged from Lenin’s time. In the face of wars like Libya and Mali where Iraq-style colonization is not the name of the game, PSL can evidently only repeat 100-year-old formulas about anti-colonial wars and revolutionary defeatism.
Standing with independent bourgeois nationalist governments as they slaughter their own peoples by the tens of thousands because said governments have conflicts of interest with imperialist powers is altogether different from standing with national liberation movements like the Vietnamese NLF who battled the slaughter wrought by French and American occupiers. The first is criminal stupidity, the second is anti-imperialism.
Two opposing trends indeed.