How did self-declared anarchists come to support the Nato bombing of Libya? David Douglass reports
On Sunday November 6 I was confronted out of the blue by a political development in anarchism which knocked me off my feet. Surrounded by comrades in a fairly well attended meeting of the Northern Anarchist Network and the North East Anarchists at the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle, I listened with jaw dropping to the item on the agenda marked ‘Libyan Solidarity Campaign’.
The ‘Support Nato bombing tendency’ is how I would roughly designate it. I subsequently traced back this disturbing development to Ian Bone’s blog. Ian, a long standing comrade of mine, founder of Class War and many great initiatives, surely could not be the origin of this absurd and reactionary viewpoint?
This is what he wrote in March: “The left, anarchists, myself and all of us are against western military intervention and a no-fly zone. Some of those arguments are worn out already - ‘We did it because we wanted Libya’s oil’. But political positions have real consequences … without such intervention we shall watch thousands die in Benghazi and the triumph of a nutter which will set back uprisings in other Arab dictatorships. We will have maintained our impeccable anti-imperialist integrity against the cries of soon-to-be-annihilated rebels now asking for a no-fly zone.”
Here we have Ian deliberating with himself basically on not wanting to see the anti-Gaddafi rebels go down in blood, but realising the consequences of western military intervention. This is fair enough as thinking out loud, but how many thoughts did Ian have as to the nature of what was being proposed against the Gaddafi regime? The rebels were not just living their lives or minding their own business, but posing a military and political challenge. What were they offering? This is crucial in any discussion, not whether my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but is my enemy’s enemy worse than my enemy or the same? The Benghazi-based rebellion was rooted in Islamist and monarchist opposition to Gaddafi. Does this effort further the struggle of the working class to gain power for itself? Can we take a side in a war which always ultimately may be against us and people of our political stance, and the working class as a class acting in its own interests? Can Nato ever spearhead a progressive revolution? Really?
‘Arm Libyan rebels’
Two days after the above post, Ian quoted the concerns of one of the Libyan rebels’ leaders: “If you don’t want to do something, you rely on the diplomatic side. It is not enough when people are dying,” said Iman Bugaighis, spokeswoman for the revolutionary council. “We need more than diplomacy. We need a no-fly zone, but we need more than that. We need air strikes. I think they know where to bomb if they want to bomb. They know how to intervene. It’s urgent.”
The original report, from The Guardian, quoted by Ian, went on: “The rebels appealed for weapons supplies, saying they are being outgunned by Gaddafi’s forces. However, Bugaighis said the revolutionary administration remains opposed to foreign troops intervening in Libya on the ground.”
He responded: “This is a game-changer in my opinion. We should at the very least provide weapons to the rebels and I would be quite happy to see western planes bombing the fuck out of Saif Gaddafi and his cronies. How can revolutionaries in the UK gainsay what rebels fighting and dying are crying out for? Quite easily is the answer - far better to keep your revolutionary credentials than soil your hands with reality - the reality that the rebels will die unless we support them. Not that tough a choice, is it? - but spare me the crocodile tears, comrades. Contrast with the left’s calls for support for republican Spain during the Spanish civil war.”
Ian was now doing a number of quite strange things. I for one would never, never talk about ‘our government’, ‘our soldiers’, ‘our police’. I do not do it and it is not hard because it’s not our government, soldiers or police. They all belong to the ruling class, which the working class is at war with. The ruling class is not in class terms, in cultural terms, in physical terms anything to do with me. So when did Ian become part of it? If he says that “we” should arm the rebels and impose a no-fly zone, it is clear he is not talking about anarchists: he is talking about the armed bodies of men, the state’s armed bodies of men. And he calls the RAF and Nato “we”, as if we all have one interest.
The ‘no-fly zone’ in itself was a phrase used to con a reluctant UN concerned not to get involved in a civil war and take a side. The example which comes to mind was the no-fly zone imposed on Saddam Hussein, which basically grounded his aircraft and stopped him being able to use disproportionate military power against his opponents. To my recollection, until the actual invasion of Iraq that is all it did. The UN clearly was led to believe that is what would happen here, with the Gaddafi air force being unable to operate and the rebels given a fighting chance. That is not what happened, of course, and the ‘no-fly zone’ became a ‘no-move zone’, as Nato went on the offensive, acting as the rebels’ air force - deployed against all Gaddafi’s ground operations headquarters and areas of support.
It is also utterly obscene and offensive to compare the socialist/communist and sometimes anarchist government of Spain, which was trying to bring about a progressive, pro-working class, communistic society, with Libyan rebels, many of whom are trying to impose some form of fundamentalist, theocratic Islamic state, or at the very best - and this is not even a strong minority view - a bourgeois democracy in which sharia law is a great part of the country’s jurisprudence, and the rights and liberties of women and non-Muslims are probably made worse. The Morning Star reported in November that an Al-Qa’eda flag was flying over the main Benghazi court house. Not that such a flag flying next to the new ‘official’ Libyan flag would demonstrate the level of Islamist political support. But the fact that no-one dared take it down might.
No support to Nato
However, let us be quite clear here. The nature of the forces involved and their goals is almost unimportant, compared to the main issue: that of calling for and supporting Nato’s military agenda in Libya. Would this be different if the rebels were an anarchist/communist revolutionary force? It most certainly would not, but such a force (a) would not call in Nato and (b) even if they did their request would be ignored, as in Spain, for the most obvious of reasons.
The failure of Spain in the civil war was that the government made appeals for help to states which were part of the class enemy, instead of appealing on behalf of the Spanish working class over the heads of bourgeois national governments to the workers of the world for direct class assistance and defence as part of those workers’ own struggles against capitalism. Did we seriously think the British and American ruling class would ride to the rescue of anarchism in Spain when threatened by fascism? So that the Spanish revolution could continue and expropriate the capitalist class and spread revolution throughout Europe? Of course not, and the failure to recognise that, to see this as a class, not a bourgeois democratic, issue caused the defeat, along with outright treachery from Stalin.
Bourgeois blood is thicker than democratic water. So why did Nato go into Libya? Because it was concerned that people were going to be massacred? Well, that’s odd, isn’t it? They didn’t have any no-fly zones when Israel was bombing Lebanon back to the Stone Age, or was massacring the helpless people of Gaza. When the Palestinians rose up to stop the illegal land grabs and Zionist genocide in the West Bank, did anyone see any SAS or Nato planes? Did anyone see them in Bahrain or Dubai? Now why would that be?
Ian, if he stops and thinks, knows damn well why. Because blood is not the question here - imperialism doesn’t give a monkeys about that. Gaddafi was another peg in the board game against formally anti-imperialist leaders in the Middle East who proved a threat to Israel, the US and western oil interests. Certainly some progressive elements, maybe even some socialistic advocates, joined this rebellion, but they do not characterise its trajectory, as we have already seen. Let us hope their fate will not be the same as similar forces in Iran.
Whichever way this shapes up, our demand can only be ‘No war but class war’. Had Ian been talking of drumming up an international brigade of left and progressive volunteers to overthrow Gaddafi and help create a more socialistic and progressive social system, we could support at least the good intentions. The bottom line for any support to this revolution would be a commitment to a democratic, secular society, which guarantees the rights of women, non-Muslims, trade unions and workers. Under no circumstances, however, do we (and that means the working class, and progressive political forces of the left) ever call for action by our hated class enemy, including Nato.
The 1926 general strike was in part defeated by the CPGB call, “All power to the TUC general council”. This conceded our power - the power of the class - to the bureaucrats, who promptly used it to sell us out and bring about our defeat. Stupid though that slogan was, here we have Ian Bone, a self-declared anarchist, calling for, if not all power to the Nato jets and the generals, then licence to Nato jets and generals to prosecute the war. Once you have brought them in - and they would not be in unless their own interests were being served - they will set the agenda, and that agenda is not about bringing about a progressive society in Libya.
In a later posting on his blog Ian uses the Maoists as a straw man to represent the forces calling for defence of Gaddafi. Anarchists especially cannot ‘defend’ or ‘support’ Gaddafi. We wanted Gaddafi brought down, but not by Islamists, Israeli invasion or Nato bombing. If this rebellion had really represented the ‘voice of the people’, if it had indeed popular mass support, it would have been able to topple Gaddafi’s ramshackle forces without outside help.
To be consistent, if you backed Nato in Libya you would have to become the one-eyed cheerleader of western intervention around the world. Then you would have to move back through history, and recognise like Kropotkin that it was right to fight World War I to defend ‘poor little Belgium’ against the blood-crazed Hun. Perhaps the Crimea war was right - poor little Turkey and that big Russian bear. Maybe, Ian, these were all ‘game-changers’ and we are just waking up to it. Pass the poppies and the union jacks. After all, if any of ‘our boys’ get killed fighting in a cause we support, we should surely honour them - perhaps we could draft a red and black poppy for the occasion?
So what are the wars in which we take a side? I would side with anti-imperialist wars of national liberation, where the aim is the establishment of a system or at least the circumstances in which a progressive, egalitarian, secular society can be built. I would call for a victory to all pro-working class tendencies within an overall liberation struggle and the defeat of imperialism. In such circumstances calling for active physical support and mobilising international working class units would be fine by me, providing it was practical in a military sense. Where there is an anti-imperialist struggle - say, for example, Saddam versus the US/UN - I would not support either side, and would condemn any imperialist intervention, while calling for the internal overthrow of Saddam by socialistic/communistic/anarchistic forces, and demanding non-intervention by the superpowers. It is the same with Iran. Against any Nato or Israeli strikes or provocations on Iran, while calling for the revolutionary overthrow of the regime by progressive, egalitarian, socialistic, secular forces. In this case we are unlikely to be outflanked by any anti-Iranian regime which is more repressive than the one already in place.
Let us return to the November 6 Northern Anarchist Network (NAN) conference in Newcastle. This is when I first come across this anarchist, pro-Nato, Libyan interventionist tendency. I am told by the people who support this line that I am doing them an injustice by saying they support Nato. In fact they only support Nato bombing and the Nato prosecution of the war against Gaddafi. Sorry, I don’t see the distinction. You clearly can’t be against Nato while calling for it to act.
It is clear that the people supporting this line had been largely inspired by Ian’s blog. That’s not too much of a presumption, since the main speaker and two others used exactly the same quotes and word-for-word justifications as Ian had. But there was more. In quite an odd irony, I think, and quoting the same sort of list found in the Mail and Telegraph, the speakers reminded us that Gaddafi had armed the IRA!
Now here we have a paradox: it seems that, while the Islamist insurgents were quite justified in calling for Nato and western special forces to fight directly on their side against Gaddafi, it was unacceptable that the IRA - fighting against British imperialism and the occupation of Ireland - got Semtex and AKs from Gaddafi. Indeed the main speakers at this meeting have always been major critics of the IRA, which, contrary to the Libyan forces being supported now, put forward a socialistic, democratic, secular, non-sectarian programme for a new Ireland based on workers and small farmers in a 32-county republic. ‘We’ in the anarchist left could not then get our hands dirty and support such a struggle because it was for ‘a state’ and had strong nationalist elements in it. The bombs then, of course, were on our doorstep and attacking ‘our’ state.
NAN’s convenor angrily declared that the Stop the War Coalition had marched against the Nato bombing of Libya alongside people calling for victory to Gaddafi. He equated this with the Blackshirts marching in London! Well, leave aside that we all marched against the war in Iraq alongside people calling for the victory of god, wearing niqabs, alongside Tories, Lib Dems and even communists of the Mao variety. Who is NAN and the Nato anarchist tendency marching with now? All the bourgeois political parties, the mullahs, Israel … It is the kettle calling the frying pan. How the fuck did NAN and Ian Bone get mixed up in a pro-war, pro-Nato campaign?
I must make the point that not all of NAN’s supporters were at that meeting and that this line, which is not the policy or perspective of the whole group, is offered by only some of them. However, out of maybe 15 north-east anarchists at that meeting, only one spoke against this line.
I am getting on a bit now, and I have been in this movement as long as Ian, but I have never, ever seen self-declared anarchists so wrong-footed and so totally confused in my entire life. It ranks with the US Trots who ended up deciding that the USSR posed the greatest danger to socialism in the world and the USA would have to be supported to stop it. In the end they were joining the US army, supporting calls for the atomic bombing of Russia and China, acting as apologists for the massacre of millions of reds of all sorts in Indonesia, Kenya, Congo, Angola, backing the Korean and Vietnam wars, etc, etc.
It’s a slippery slope, comrades, or, as someone else said a long, long time ago, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But at least I can now understand how old Kropotkin ended up supporting World War I.
1. Ian Bone, March 10: http://ianbone.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/libyan-rebels-facing-military-defeat-do-we-have-a-problem.