Taking sides about Libya

Todd Chretien examines the attitude of the Workers World Party and Party for Liberation and Socialism toward Muammar el-Qaddafi's dictatorship in Libya.

Mourners carry the body of a 44-year-old man killed in clashes with pro-Qaddafi forces in eastern TripoliMourners carry the body of a 44-year-old man killed in clashes with pro-Qaddafi forces in eastern Tripoli

"Of all the struggles going on in North Africa and the Middle East right now, the most difficult to unravel is the one in Libya."
-- Workers World Party, February 23, 2011

"At present, the revolt has not produced any organizational form or leader that would make it possible to characterize it politically."
-- Party for Socialism and Liberation, February 24, 2011

THOSE WERE the statements last week from two well-known U.S. socialist groups active in anti-imperialist movements. As madman Muammar el-Qaddafi ranted in his bunker about al-Qaeda slipping hallucinogens into young people's coffee in order to make them rebel, the Workers World Party (WWP) and Party for Liberation and Socialism (PSL) refused to take a stand with the Libyan people against a dictator.

These two organizations, part of the same group until 2004, have long accepted the Libyan dictatorship's claim to be progressive and anti-imperialist in spite of the corruption of the country's tiny elite around Qaddafi and the savagery of the regime's police-state repression and violence--now on sickening display for all the world to see.

As recently as 2009, the WWP, for example, published an article that spoke highly of the Qaddafi regime as it celebrated the 40th anniversary of Libya's "revolution."

The article said the anniversary "has been acknowledged by governments throughout the African continent and the world"--with Zimbabwe's dictatorial President Robert Mugabe as example number one. The WWP even saluted Qaddafi's close relationship with the right-wing Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi, noting that Italy would "honor the 40th anniversary celebration [of Qaddafi's rule] with a display by its Air Force aerobatics team."

In its recent statement, PSL noted that "developments in the last decade have greatly and understandably diminished [Qaddafi's] credibility among progressive and anti-imperialist forces in the region, almost all of which have declared their solidarity with the Libyan revolt."

That's a huge understatement. Qaddafi has gone to great lengths to reverse his once-hostile relationship to Western governments.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Libya purchased large amounts of military equipment from the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries, which were used to go to war with neighboring Chad and construct a vast police state. While the Cold War was still on, the U.S. considered Libya an enemy, and Ronald Reagan targeted the country in the 1980s, including an attempt to assassinate Qaddafi by bombing one of his residences (which killed his 15-month-old daughter).

But in the late 1990s, Qaddafi began to make peace with his former adversaries. And after 9/11, Qaddafi offered Libyan support for the U.S. government's "war on terror" under George W. Bush. The regime restored diplomatic relations with the U.S., leading ExxonMobil, Chevron and other American corporations to rush into lucrative exploration and production deals.

Libya also reestablished ties to Western Europe, especially Berlusconi in Italy, which was once the colonial ruler of Libya. The Qaddafi-Berlusconi partnership is particularly close, ranging from multibillion-dollar oil deals to a shared affinity for young Italian fashion models.

But neither the lucrative business deals with the West nor revenues from Libya's vast oil resources have trickled down to the majority of people in the country. Despite Libya's small population of 6 million, unemployment has remained high (roughly 25 percent) and wages low (around $250 a month). Meanwhile, Qaddafi's immediate inner circle has squirreled away fortunes in foreign banks and overseas investments.

This is the regime that the WWP and PSL have supported as "progressive" for years--and which they now refuse to condemn for its savage assault on people demanding democracy.

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SO WHY can't the PSL and WWP join "almost all progressive and anti-imperialist forces in the region"--and, I would add, around the world, with the notable exceptions of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez--in openly supporting the Libyan people in their rebellion against the dictatorship?

The answer lies in these groups' view of social revolution.

The Workers World Party was founded in 1959 by Sam Marcy and other members of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. The SWP aligned itself with exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his struggle against the Stalinist counterrevolution. Thus, when workers in Hungary rose up in 1956 against the so-called "Communist" police state that ruled over them, the SWP organized in solidarity with the workers.

Marcy and the founders of WWP did a somersault, calling the movement in Hungary a "full-scale, nationwide counterrevolution" and siding with the invading Russian tanks sent to suppress the rebellion. (V. Grey, "The Class Character of the Hungarian Uprising," SWP Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 18, No. 1, January 1957)

Since then, the WWP and the newer PSL (which broke away from the WWP organizationally in 2004, but maintained identical political beliefs) have consistently sided with Stalinist or "anti-imperialist" states against social struggles from below.

In 1968, for example, Marcy cheered on Russian tanks when they were sent into Eastern Europe again, this time to smash a workers and student uprising in Czechoslovakia. As Marcy wrote, "We support the Warsaw Pact intervention under present circumstances."

In 1989, the WWP praised the suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square. In response to a SocialistWorker.org article commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen rebellion, Richard Becker, a leading member of PSL, criticized the International Socialist Organization, writing, "Do they not recognize that the victory of the Tiananmen protesters and their supporters...would have made U.S. imperialism's victory in 1989-91 even more complete?"

In 1991, top bureaucrats, generals and KGB chiefs launched a military coup in a last-ditch effort to preserve their rule in the former USSR. They were defeated by massive demonstrations in the streets of Moscow. Marcy criticized the coup leaders for their failure, writing, "A coalition of military officers, party officials and security forces has made an ill-fated attempt to halt the process of capitalist restoration in the USSR."

The WWP's and PSL's enthusiasm for crackdowns has not diminished with the passage of time. Incredibly, they continue to defend the Chinese Communist Party as an "anti-imperialist" force. In 2008, PSL leader Brian Becker explained that the group must "offer militant political defense of the Chinese government" in the face of mass movements which are hostile to the Communist Party.

In addition to their admiration for the rulers of China, the WWP and PSL extend their support of what might be called "regime socialism" to various less powerful governments, such as North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iraq (under Saddam Hussein), Libya, Syria, and even to states they deem to be "anti-imperialist," such as Iran.

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THE MAIN justification for this characterization is that these governments are (or at least have been) targets of U.S. imperialism.

All genuine socialists in the U.S. must unequivocally oppose all forms of intervention in these countries, whatever the character of their governments. Socialists never support their "own" government in its wars for power and profit. That's why we call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. military, mercenary and intelligence forces from Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of all aid to Israel, Egypt, Colombia and Saudi Arabia; and the lifting of sanctions against Cuba, to name a few important anti-imperialist positions.

But genuine socialism and anti-imperialism requires more than a simple "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach. It requires organizing to link the interests of workers, students, the poor and the oppressed across the world, including to their brothers and sisters in the United States.

This necessitates organizing against the U.S. government's military attacks on other nations and exposing the hypocrisy of its racist propaganda conducted against political leaders and peoples it decides to demonize. Thus, even though we in the ISO believed that Saddam Hussein of Iraq was a tyrant, we were 100 percent against both U.S. wars against Iraq under George Bush Sr. and Jr., and against Bill Clinton's deadly sanctions regime.

However, opposing imperialist war and supporting the right of national self-determination does not mean that socialists should give, as Brian Becker puts it, "militant political defense" to every government the U.S. government declares to be its foe.

Instead, while we oppose U.S. (or European or Chinese or Russian) intervention, we also support the right of workers, students and poor people in these countries to rebel, to build social movements, to fight for their democratic rights like freedom of speech, religion and assembly, and to struggle for union rights, women's and racial equality, and more.

In fact, we think U.S. imperialism is best opposed not by the continuing state power of decrepit, corrupt, bureaucratic rulers, but by rebellion from below.

U.S. imperialism can deal with losing a dictator or two in the Middle East and North Africa. What it can't handle is a region-wide social revolution that threatens its economic, political and military interests.

This is precisely what is happening across the region, and the workers, students and poor of North Africa and the Middle East don't care if the WWP and PSL have anointed the regime they happen to live under as "progressive" or not.

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IF the WWP and PSL issued mealy-mouthed statements about Libya that give the feeling they hope Qaddafi somehow hangs on to power, the two organizations continue to promote their loud and proud support of the Iranian regime's brutal crackdown on dissent. As PSL's Mazda Majidi wrote:

[T]here is one obvious difference between the revolutionary movement in Egypt and the Green opposition in Iran. In Egypt, the movement encompasses millions of people from different classes against the U.S. client Mubarak dictatorship. The dictatorship has very little social base left. There were no pro-Mubarak demonstrations, except for the few hundred hired thugs and policemen out of uniform that tried unsuccessfully to quash the protests. In contrast, in Iran, on many occasions, millions of predominantly working-class people have demonstrated in support of the Islamic Republic.

This is an incredible statement from beginning to end. Majidi dramatically underestimates the social base of the Egyptian regime, reducing it to a "few hundred hired thugs." In fact, tens of thousands of thugs were unleashed on Tahrir Square, resulting in many deaths, and tens of thousands more--the Mubarak regime's police and security service personnel numbered 1.7 million--launched attacks throughout the country. It was only through a heroic mass struggle that these forces were defeated.

Despite what Majidi claims, the "obvious difference" between Egypt and Iran was that the regime lost in Egypt, while the Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has so far managed to repress the opposition.

But the simple fact is that the same underlying conditions of poverty, oppression and repression which drove millions to the streets in Iran in 2009 also sparked the revolution in Tunisia, the revolution in Egypt and the rebellion that will hopefully soon overthrow Qaddafi in Libya. The revolutionary wave is sure to continue--and it is bound to make its way back to Tehran, as evidenced by a series of demonstrations over the past month.

Why did it take more than a week for the WWP and PSL to make a statement about the Libyan revolution? Only now that the revolt has achieved mass proportions are these organizations beginning to hedge their bets in case Qaddafi falls, with some vague qualifications of their support for the regime.

Nevertheless, instead of standing forthrightly with the revolution spreading through the Arab world, these groups want to pick and choose which revolutions are "good" and which are "bad." Concretely, under PSL's influence, the ANSWER coalition in San Francisco refused to endorse a rally on February 26 in solidarity with the Libyan uprising. This allegiance to police states may make some sense in the minds of the WWP and PSL theoreticians, but it has no place in the fight for social justice.

The leaderships of the WWP and PSL have had decades to reconsider their "militant" defense of Stalinism and supposedly "anti-imperialist" police states--and they have sided with the tanks every time.

That is their right. Everyone is free to think what they want. Fortunately, the workers, students and poor of North Africa and the Middle East are demonstrating a clearer understanding of the class struggle.

Of course, socialists and radicals of all stripes must continue to work together to oppose U.S. military intervention and the racist scapegoating that justifies it, despite our disagreements.

But this debate should not be papered over. For several generations, the dominant position among those who called themselves socialists was support for the kind of Stalinist regimes that the WWP and PSL back to this day. It is high time to clear away these distorted theories and recognize that Karl Marx's commitment to revolution "from below" means supporting the mass struggles spreading from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya and beyond.