Let me state from the outset that Comrade Tony Iltis possesses one of the most brilliant political minds in this country. His accumulated years of socialist activism have combined with recent years of experience as a Green Left Weekly journalist to produce an analysis of politics which is an asset to the entire left. Many a time I have found myself simply listening and learning as he deftly exposes the roots of a current political issue confronting socialists. Even the remarkable political acumen of Comrade Iltis, however, is not immune to the disorienting effects of the split personality complex inherited from the task of building SA as an ostensibly socialist, but not explicitly Marxist, political organisation.
In the first issue of Green Left for 2012, Tony Iltis contributes the article “Arab Spring confronts obstacles one year on”. (1) In it, Tony writes “….the Arab Spring uprisings have challenged the political injustices and crimes of (a) range of tyrants. This has ranged from those who are straight out puppets of Western imperialism, such as former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, to those that have varying degrees of conflict with imperialism….this includes overthrown and assassinated Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi and Syria's besieged ruler, Bashar al-Asad.”
There we have it. Leaving Bashar al-Asad aside for a moment, Colonel Gaddafi was a tyrant, as was Hosni Mubarak. The only difference, apparently, was that Muburak had little or no conflicts with Western imperialism, whereas Colonel Gaddafi had quite a few conflicts with the West. Mubarak was a puppet of the West, whereas Gaddafi demonstrated a degree of independence. Perhaps he was a puppet only some of the time. The most serious error in this case is in the way it is presented, without context. “Gaddafi was a tyrant” — this was also one of the most disturbing phrases that we heard echoing from the corridors of the 8th Socialist Alliance national conference.
Disturbing, for the reason that Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, and the whole gamut of Western governments that carried out or supported NATO's criminal and genocidal war against Libya, all agree that “Gaddafi was a tyrant”. Indeed, that is why they claim they bombed Libya into oblivion, employing breathtaking hypocrisy that only imperialist governments can convey. Is it not concerning that SA uses the same language, and the same phrases, as the very forces of world domination we claim to stand against? Is it not concerning that the Socialist Alliance (SA) has the same characterisation of the former Gaddafi led government, as the US/UK/FRA imperialist coalition which murdered tens of thousands of unarmed Libyans?
Apparently not, according to the SA leadership. Yes, there were deaths of innocents, SA leaders admitted, but in all civil wars this is the case, and there wasn't much we could do about it. Civil war is the worst type of war, they said, innocent people always die in such circumstances. So even if we support the monarchists, CIA informants, fundamentalist Islamists and others, because they are opposing the “tyrant” Gaddafi, it's not really our fault if they also torture and murder black Africans because of the colour of their skin. It's also not really our fault if these right wing elements also torture and murder anyone in Libya who is even suspected of supporting Gaddafi. Nor is it really our fault if anyone who waves the Green flag of the former Libya is shot and killed for doing so. All that matters is that we are seen to be opposing the “tyrant” Gaddafi.
It doesn't seem that anyone denies that the Gaddafi regime utilised elements of tyranny to maintain its rule. I would be the last person to deny that excessive force was used against any Libyan who opposed the former Libyan government. But it is a huge step from recognising these aspects, and falling in behind NATO who hypocritically claimed they also stood for the democratic rights of the Libyan people. I will admit that at the time I couldn't see it, but it seems that the correct position was to take no position on the largely right wing uprising against Gaddafi, while also opposing NATO's war on Libya. What SA did was to enthusiastically support the rising against Gaddafi, regardless of the forces which led it, and then later oppose NATO's war on Libya. As I have stated before, SA's belated opposition to NATO's war on Libya rang very hollow, because we had previously supported any elements that wished to overthrow the Gaddafi government. In fact, I would say SA's support for the right wing coup totally negated SA's stated opposition to NATO's war. NATO also claimed that the world must be rid of Gaddafi.
It seems embarrassing to remind comrades what approach socialists should take when discussing Third World “dictators”. There is no denying that some Third World dictators are not nice people and use their position to their advantage, regardless of the people they rule, or misrule. Socialists in the First World, however, must not focus on these aspects, but place the issue in an international context. The real “dictators” are the first world capitalists and their governments, using capital to enrich themselves and impoverish the rest — it really is the 1% against the 99%, on a global scale. They control the capital which keeps the entire planet under their rule, so in effect the leaders of the UK, France, the US and all the Western countries are the real “dictators”. A “dictator” in a Third World country may be powerful in their small corner of the world, but this power, even if used to brutally supress its people, pales in comparison to the power wielded by the West. In fact, as a whole host of examples have shown, including the recent example of Libya, Third World dictators generally can't stay in power unless they do the bidding of the West.
The sheer scale of the devastation caused on a worldwide basis by the Western governments is thousands of times more brutal than any amount of suppression wielded by a tin pot “dictator” in the Third World. Hence, socialists need to direct their criticism towards Western government leaders, pointing out their barbaric crimes and gross hypocrisy. In this way we help to direct the anger of the working class for the ongoing wars, and much else besides, to where it belongs. This is why socialists need to criticise Western government leaders, including Australian government leaders, much more heavily than Gaddafi, the Taliban, Robert Mugabe, the Burmese Junta, the Swaziland monarchy and the list could go on.
If SA runs around bellowing in the streets about how oppressive Gaddafi was as a dictator, as it has been doing in the pages of Green Left Weekly, the damage is twofold. Firstly, it miseducates the working class about just who are the opponents of the welfare of the vast majority of humanity. If we direct the anger of the working class to Third World dictators, our own First World Western governments are instantly let off the hook. The moment socialists misdirect their criticism to focus on the crimes of a Third World dictator, our “own” imperialist governments come up smelling like roses. And this is even before we consider the fact that this position is the same political position of the Western governments themselves. The second effect, which is related to the first, is that focusing criticism on Third World dictators tends to have the effect of rallying the working class behind their “leaders” — the very imperialist rulers carrying out the war, and environmentally and economically pillaging the planet. We inadvertently build nationalism by doing this, because then we have the same political position as a cut and dried liberal. But then, adopting liberal positions is the fall back once the abandonment of Marxism begins. This doesn't seem to concern the SA leadership, but by cripes it concerns me.
In her contribution to Alliance Voices “The transitional method”, Comrade Pip Hinman refers to the previous practice of the old Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), as one which “always emphasised … content over form, flexibility over rigidity”. (2) Although Pip uses this in relation to discussing party building options, the “content over form” section struck me. I entirely agree that the old DSP always did emphasise content over form. The old DSP always did seem to avoid the form over content error. Alas, but not any longer it seems.
At the recent national conference, I was repeatedly taken aback by a string of SA leaders pounding the pulpit as they sermonised that we have an obligation to support all social movements, regardless of the political character of its leadership. This seems to be a clear cut case of the form over content error. SA apparently has to support any social movement, because it is a movement. Never mind that the leadership of such a movement is right wing or conservative, or contains bourgeois sections. No, we always must support the masses in motion. Hence, we support the uprising against Gaddafi, and the fact that large sections of this coup were in the pay of the CIA, monarchists, Islamists etc — well that is just a small detail. The people are rising, thus we have an obligation to support them. Never mind what they are trying to achieve, or what their political aims are — just support them regardless.
One comrade even claimed that in Zimbabwe we have an obligation to support the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), because it is waging a struggle against the ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe. That the MDC is a thoroughly neoliberal organisation which supports wholesale privatisations and many other elements of the neoliberal creed is merely just unfortunate. Another comrade claimed that in social movements, bourgeois forces are inevitably going to be a part of the movement, so we just have to live with this fact. This comrade appears to be confusing social movements with an anti-colonial struggle of a Third World country struggling for independence from world imperialism. In this case, bourgeois forces certainly do become involved, for their own reasons as we should be aware.
I have grave concerns about SA being locked in to a strategy of supporting any social movements, uprisings, coup attempts or other upheavals even if the leadership of the movement is politically conservative. Yet I fear this is precisely what has occurred, especially in relation to the policy adopted by the 8th National Conference — “Policy on Arab Spring uprisings and Western Intervention into the Middle East” The policy contains two sections, which some comrades attempted to get amended, but were defeated and the policy was adopted in total. These two sections are the following:
These two sections are a clear reference to Libya and the Gaddafi regime, although I understand the reasons why it couldn't be named explicitly in a policy such as this. However, the policy adopted with these two sections locks SA into repeating what in our opinion are the same errors which lead to us supporting the largely right wing uprising against Gaddafi. This policy seemingly ensures that we will make the same errors in any country in the Middle East or indeed the rest of the Third World, should an uprising occur which NATO or Western imperialism may again opportunistically use as a pretext for invasion. Far from efforts to prevent errors being repeated, or efforts to understand why errors occurred, the SA leadership in fact does not even recognise that an error was made. Or if it does recognise this, it claims that everyone on the left made this error, so why pick on SA? Or, it says that SA took the correct decision, and the innocent black Africans and unarmed Libyans that were slaughtered by the forces we supported is just an unfortunate fact of history.
In my view, this is not good enough. The entire policy on the Arab Spring needs to be repealed. As it happened, the policy was rendered inoperable within one week of its adoption by the SA national conference. Within one week, Gaddafi loyalists had taken the town of Bani Walid. (3) If SA was to act in consonance with its Arab Spring policy, it would denounce those who took Bani Walid as anti-democratic, or counter-revolutionary. We kept hearing the SA leadership claim that the removal of the Gaddafi regime had “opened up democratic space” in Libya. If this is so, those who re-took Bani Walid must be anti-democratic. I would say that a better explanation that those who took Bani Walid did not wish to be ruled by a pro-Western National Transitional Council (NTC), which would open Libya to total exploitation by imperialist capital.
If SA cannot consider the possibility that SA has made an error, and then compounded this error by adopting a policy which entrenches the error, there are few options left. One option is to deny reality itself. Another related option is to relapse into political agnosticism, which the option SA has seemingly now enacted. No political support for the NTC, and no political support for any Gaddafi loyalists. No support for either side in an important struggle in North Africa. A position which says that we don't know what is going on. Just a general position that SA supports movements, regardless of politics, regardless of anything. Left wing movements, right wing movements, who cares? This slipshod approach to international politics is very perturbing.
It is simply not true, as some in SA have claimed that everyone on the left made a mistake on Libya. Interestingly enough, both wings of the Stalinist and Trotskyist left had the correct approach to Libya. Oppose the right wing uprising against Gaddafi, while giving no political support to Gaddafi, and also oppose NATO's opportunistic war on Libya. This was the position of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the Spartacist League, Trotskyist Platform and a host of other Fourth Internationalist loyalists. Why did these left parties get it right, while we got it wrong? The only answer I can come up with is that while all these left parties certainly have their own idiosyncratic interpretation of Marxism, they also reject approaching politics using any other method.
SA, on the other hand, is under no obligation to use Marxism in its approach to international politics, or on any other issue. Hence, we tend to use a liberal approach, whether this is intentional or not. The conclusion that SA jumped on the liberal “Gaddafi is/was a dictator” bandwagon seems inescapable. This bandwagon was led by the Western corporate media, and despite all our polemics against the baneful effects of the Western corporate media, and the promotion of Green Left as an antidote, we now find that Green Left has the same position, on this issue, as the corporate media we claim to oppose. The average member of the working class picking up a copy of Green Left, and reading inside “Gaddafi was a dictator”, nine times out of ten reaches the conclusion that NATO did the right thing in Libya, and thus supporting NATO wars overseas must be the done thing nowadays. Frightful ramifications such as these, though, don't seem to register in current SA groupthink.
It's easy to say in hindsight what should have been done, but I'm willing to bet that if SA was an exclusively Marxist organisation, or if it was a coalition which was heavily influenced by Marxist tendencies or groups operating within, there would have been almost no chance of adopting an incorrect position on Libya. Marxism would have demanded that we approach this issue, as with all other similar issues, with a class analysis of the forces involved, the aims of these forces, the influence of the Arab uprisings in neighbouring countries, the politics of those forces involved on all sides, the history of Libya and many other elements. But it was not to be. The RET is attempting to increase Marxist influence within SA, so that we can once again approach international politics with confidence. This may be overdue, but now is as good a time as any to begin.
Green Left Weekly, p.18, number 907, January 18, 2012.