Contradictions of the Libyan revolution and parallels with Bangladesh 1971


The events in Libya today have posed to the Bolshevik Leninist Left have posed a most complex set of questions. The uprising inLibya, coupled with its unique position in the African continent and the Arab world, and the fact of a civil war breaking out only exacerbate the intensity of the situation. One of the defining features of any sound Bolshevik Leninist analysis is that it bases itself on the very fundamentals of Marxism never deviating from the principled positions which it enshrines. Part of this is harboring a historical perspective of struggle based on an analysis of class conflict. Understanding the class forces inLibyaand viewing the present civil war and the imperialist intervention from this viewpoint would be indispensable. So far the left has been conspicuous by the absence of these perspectives in understanding the situation inLibya. One of the angles hitherto explored has been to seek out comparable historical parallels. Whilst still missing from an analysis focusing on the national contradictions of Libya itself, this may still serve to sharpen a class understanding from an international and historic perspective.

Historicalparallels: –

Before continuing with which historic parallels are being compared to the Libyan situation let’s briefly describe the situation inLibyaas it stands. The uprising inLibyabegan in the early part of the year along with the protests and uprisings inEgypt,Tunisia,SyriaandAlgeria. It was part of a pan Arabic movement spanning two continents with its aftershocks being felt in the Balkans right at the heart of Europe (there were widespread protests in Albania shortly after the Tunisian uprising).Egypt and Tunisia saw the fall of the autocracies in power and opened up a new phase of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. The Libyan regime was by far the most difficult to overcome and remains so till date. The Libyan struggle began with urban uprisings concentrated mostly in the Eastern part of the country which challenged the rule of the Gaddafi regime. The Arab revolution was accelerated with the events in Egypt which reached a climax with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Libya was not going to be alienated from these and consequently the struggle in Libya intensified, with the intensification of the “peaceful” protests in the western urban centers culminating in the present civil war situation after Gaddafi’s crackdown. Throughout the period of struggle till date what was most evident was the absence of revolutionary leadership which could develop a strong anti-imperialist perspective and consistently struggle for a revolutionaryLibya. Not only that but there was hardly the presence of any non-revolutionary progressive forces either which was present in Egypt and is now emerging as the decisive leading force in the revolution in Egypt today.  These adverse factors coupled with the fact of a civil war situation and a region wide revolutionary wave, meant that the deficit in leadership would only be exacerbated. These adverse factors have resulted in the mantle of leadership being donned by defecting sectors of Gaddafi’s regime. These are sections of the Libyan bourgeois who have quite obviously fallen out of  favor with Gaddafi and are overtly keen on developing closer relationship with world imperialism. It should be noted that amongst the leaders of the TNC (the Transitional National Council set up as a parallel rebel held government inLibya) is Gaddafi’s eldest sons who was the pioneer ofLibya’s pro-imperialist reforms. Thus, what began as a popular revolt against the regime became hijacked by the reactionary forces of a section of the Libyan bourgeoisie organized in the TNC and actively backed by imperialism from Europe and theUSA. Whilst the participation of the imperialists at the initial stages were peripheral strictly speaking, it soon changed to direct and active intervention beginning with the entry of British special forces on Libyan soil with the objective of “aiding” the rebels. Events soon spilled over to what became an inter-imperialist competition over Libya with China, India, Russia and Brazil voting against the UN resolution on the no-fly zone and the NATO ‘humanitarian’ intervention. Within Libya the leadership of the TNC only kept on showing its reactionary character which by now was openly welcoming the imperialist intervention. This was done in stark contradiction to the wishes of the people ofLibyathemselves who were very clear on maintaining their independence from imperialism. (This was evident from banners being raised inTripoliand other liberated cities). Events thereafter have only seen the intensification of the imperialist backed offensive on Libya and progressively greater participation of the NATO forces as well as that of theUSA. As of now it seems from reports that the ‘rebels’ backed now by the NATO are winning the civil war against Gaddafi with cities after cities falling to rebel forces. In addition to that an interesting pattern is emerging with the imperial forces wanting greater control over the cities which fall to rebel hands. The actions of the NATO in Misrata point to this direction. Thus, we see a progressive change in the situation in Libya beginning from the months of urban uprisings, its subsequent crackdown by the regime forces, the recourse of the rebellion to arms, the subsequent constrictions faced by the rebel forces leading to capitulation by their bourgeois leadership, the eventual entry of western imperialist forces (complemented by the near simultaneous exit of sub-imperial powers from the scene), and ending in the present malaise where decisive power is under threat of falling completely into imperialist hands.

In short the course of the Libyan revolution hitherto is summarized by the chain of events aforementioned. Let’s now, compare it with the parallels that being dealt with as of now. Most of us in the Bolshevik Leninist left would immediately liken the task of constructing a defeatist position in re imperialism as well as Gaddafi going by Lenin’s tactics in relation to Kerensky. Indeed this was the first parallel that has been weighed in against the realities ofLibya. But how far is this applicable? Let’s consider the following:

a) The defense of the Kerensky regime by the Bolsheviks in Russia was done considering the fact of a successful democratic revolution overturning the Czarist regime. Should Kornilov have been allowed to win against the government; the gains of the democratic revolution would have been undone, thereby destroying the possibility of a further advance towards a socialist revolution. To use this parallel to defend Gaddafi against the imperialist attack I feel is preposterous. Firstly, unlike Russia in February, the Libyan proletariat has yet to see the success of a revolution to even that of Egyptian levels. Secondly, the prime forces of reaction inLibya’s case are those of NATO and the EU imperialists which are external and not internal as was the case with Kornilov in Russia which represented a national threat emerging from within Russia.

b) The defense of Kerensky was objectively speaking a military defense of the democratic bourgeois regime which was formed from the February revolution. It was never an unconditional defense of the regime per se . In Libyawe see a nation threatened by imperialist invasion and imperialist occupation which demands revolutionaries to unconditionally defend the independent non-imperialist regime. Unconditional defense but never should it be uncritical. On the contrary we are duty bound to be critical in our defense of national struggles especially in situations like Libyawhere we are faced with a counter revolutionary force in the leadership of the defense of the nation-state, in Libyanamely that of Gaddafi and his forces. There are going to be obvious differences between the military defense of Kerensky and the much wider anti-imperialist defencism applying to a semi colonial nation resisting imperialism. Here a more fitting parallel that can be drawn is with that of Trotsky’s defense of Haille Selassie against that of Italian Imperialism (Not Fascism. The distinction has value here but that maybe highlighted in a different context).

As discussed, the parallel between the Libyan situation and that of Ethiopiain the 1930s still has some relevance. It holds relevance to the extent that Ethiopiawas a country in the periphery of capitalism resisting an imperialist invasion. Haille Selassie was the king of Ethiopiaruling by ‘divine sanction’. In every manner of speaking the rule was reactionary in nature. Despite that Trotsky upheld the commitment towards the defense of oppressed nations in the face of an imperialist threat which is characteristic of Bolshevik political praxis. Most in defense of Gaddafi in Libyatoday in the Bolshevik Leninist left would swear by this example, defending the national sovereignty of semi colonial nations against an imperialist offensive. However, there are many hidden dangers of taking up this precedent without scrutiny of the objective realities facing us in any particular situation. In Libya’s case the first question arises in the comparison with Haille Selassie. To what extent can we consider Gaddafi, the harbinger of “Islamic socialism” and the Libya’s 2nd anti-imperialist revolution (against the proxy monarchy of 1961) comparable to Haille Selassie, the theocratic ruler ofEthiopia? Both led the struggle to resist imperialist aggression, but that is where the similarities end. The second and more pressing question which arises here centers on the fact that the imperialists inLibya aren’t in the actual process of occupation ofLibya unlike what the Italians were engaged with inEthiopia in 1935. When there is indeed no actual occupation of Libyan land, no direct threat from the imperialists themselves, where we indeed see the imperialists functioning as an ancillary to the much more immediately visible force of the rebel trans national council, how can we draw the same tactics of defencism which apply to the situation of direct imperialist aggression (Ethiopia) to that of indirect imperialist intervention (Libya)? What is important for us to consider in both cases, is how the masses in both situations would relate to the respective situations. We can’t put the same set of demands and transitional slogans in both cases. Even more complex is the fact of the nature of the regime of Gaddafi inLibya which must be taken into consideration. When considering all these factors it becomes quite clearly evident that comparisons withEthiopia and defending Haille Selassie become impressionistic at best and treacherously misleading at worst. On this point we may move to right off a comparison between Libya and China on similar grounds, since yet again we are dealing with regimes which are of a different nature and a situation with several fundamentally different dynamics, not to mention the active presence of Stalinism as a political force with mass support. No such force exists inLibya today in the same degree of power. There is however, a lot of international support for Gaddafi from the Castroist camp and the subjective element of Chinese Stalinism/Maoism might as well be tacitly present from China’s end, but notwithstanding this the active role of Stalinism in determining the course of Libyan events presently is marginal to say the least.

Another comparison which was both historically and geographically closer to that ofLibyawas put forward in the example ofIran. However, there are hardly any immediately noticeable comparisons one can draw from that apart from hypothetical situations which involve a similar imperialist intervention in Iran. But in the absence of such a situation actually happening or have happened it is indeed difficult to draw a proper comparison. Nevertheless the general viewpoint of defencism applying to a nation in the periphery of Capitalism like Iran in the face of an imperialist intervention would still hold.

The Bangladesh parallel: –

One of the least explored parallels in the ongoing discussions onLibyais that of the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971, this despite the striking similarity of events in the two. In view of how little is known about this formative event in the national and political history of billion-strong working class, peasantry and rural poor of South Asia, it’s worth examining in some detail.

The Bangladesh Liberation war was the bloodiest and most deep-reaching chapter in the post-independence history of the Indian sub-continent, and by far the largest war ever fought in the 20th century inIndia. Simultaneously, it was a tragic betrayal of the hopes and aspirations of the masses of Bengal. A betrayal and defeat imposed upon a magnificent victory. The events preceding the war itself were no less dramatic.

The present nation-state of Bangladesh was preceded by the province of East Pakistanwhich was the province of East Bengal since the first partition of Bengal in 1905. Abloody war of independence began in 1971 which led to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan.  However, the events of 1971 in East Bengalshould more correctly be viewed as a culmination of the democratic struggles which preceded it in the decades of the 50s and 60s. The first big mass mobilizations occurred in 1954 around the compulsory introduction of Urdu as the state language in Pakistan, both in its eastern and western wing. The Bengali masses, who were the majority of what was called East Pakistan took to this move by the Pakistani state bitterly, primarily because the language of the majority of the people in the province was Bengali and few knew or understood Urdu which is primarily spoken in Punjab and other western provinces of Pakistan. It must be noted that the same period saw the emergence of the first military dictatorship in Pakistan in 1958, partly as a reaction to the defeats incurred by the Pakistan army in its war with India over Kashmir. The bourgeoisie of Pakistan felt threatened by a decidedly superior military to its east, and quite naturally took to the support and shelter of the US and UK as a counter to India. At the same time the threat of the working class and peasantry began to emerge from the struggle going on in the East. The forces of Western imperialism supported the regime and its clampdown on the democratic struggles. The launching of the language movement in East Pakistan became the forerunner to the later democratic struggles which would arise inPakistanconcluding in the massive struggles in the late 60s. This struggle succeeded and opened up a whole new chapter of class struggle in Bengal and the sub-continent.

At the same time that East Bengal arose in revolt against the Pakistani state, the peasantry inWest Bengal arose in struggle demanding land reforms. Both struggles were brutally crushed down by the state machinery in both countries. In the coming decades the political interactions between the avante garde radicalized petty bourgeois of West Bengal in Calcutta would come more and more in contact with a new generation of revolutionists in East Pakistan based from Dhaka. The Naxalite movement which began with the Naxalbari insurrection in1964 inWest Bengal gave a new impetus to peasant struggles all over the sub-continent and inspired similar insurrectionary movements in East Bengal. By this time the whole of the sub-continent was undergoing a wave of class struggles and in particular heightened militancy from the working class. The stunning victories of the anti-US Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968 started another wave of class struggles world over, a wave which reached the borders of the sub-continent and in particular Pakistan. By this time the relation between the eastern and western provinces of Pakistan had soured beyond repair. The calamity caused by the Bhola Cyclone of 1969 and the apathetic reaction of the Pakistani state to the sufferings of the masses there was the last straw. In addition to this an emergent Communist movement was seen throughout Pakistan and the sub-continent which posed a dire threat to the bourgeoisie of India and Pakistan.

The two most popular parties in East Pakistan were the Communist Party led by Moni Singh and the National Awami Party led by the left wing populist leader Maulana Bhasani. At the time of the national elections inPakistanthe majority of the population and the largest component of the parliament was the province of East Pakistan. Notwithstanding this, the Pakistani state decided to deliberately crush the aspirations of the masses of the province and continue to disenfranchise them. The conflict between the representatives of East andWest Pakistanbecame evident in western leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s opposition to the candidature of Sheik Mujibur Rahman in the east. For the bourgeoisie in Pakistan, the province of East Pakistanwas nothing more than an exploitable reserve for raw material. One of the chief money-spinners to emerge in Pakistan was the textile and jute industry which was based on the resources available in East Pakistan. The factories however were located mostly inWest Pakistan. The experiences of the democratic struggles of the past in addition to the economic realities of East Pakistanwould culminate in 1971 leading to its independence.

The national elections ofPakistantook place in 1969 and the two most popular parties i.e. the Communist party and the NAP of Bhasani decided to boycott polls. This opened the way for the Awami League party of Mujibur Rahman. Once the counting began, it became evident that the Awami League would win the majority of seats in the assembly. Using the usual undemocratic method of a bourgeois democracy in crisis, the Pakistani establishment reacted to this electoral victory by declaring a state of emergency and making way for a military dictatorship under General Yahya Khan. In addition the defeats thePakistanarmy suffered at the hands of the Indian army and mounting military expenditures pushedPakistanto the brink of a socio-economic crisis. Almost immediately after the military coup, the state made a bloody retaliatory clampdown on the people of East Pakistan. Operation Searchlight was carried out to ‘restore order’ by attacking the ‘anti-national forces’ operating out of Dhaka, the most important city in East Pakistan. It is estimated that 5,000-35,000 people either died or disappeared during the course of the operation, which was specifically targeted the most advanced elements of East Pakistani society. The mass persecution of rebellious forces in East Pakistan spread into the countryside. This instigated an armed revolt from the masses.

The first forces to respond were the Maoist rebels in the countryside.  Siraj Shikder was the Maoist leader inEast Pakistan. The course of the national liberation struggle simultaneously saw a split in the Maoist movement in the sub-continent as the People’s Republic of China sided with the Pakistani state as part of their strategy to containIndia. Nevertheless, the Maoist forces in East Pakistan remained focused on the goal of national liberation of Bangladesh, and continued to resist the assault of the Pakistani army inEast Pakistan. By the middle of 1971 the rebel army had made it almost impossible for the Pakistani establishment to continue any semblance of authority. The leadership of the Awami League fled into India and set up a parallel government with the active backing of the Indian state. The Communist Party of India gave support to the rebels in East Pakistan as well as aid in handling the massive flow of war refugees who were fleeing into the Indian state ofWest Bengal. Whilst India was initially reluctant to intervene directly in the war, the continuous flow of refugees burdened the state ofWest Bengal. This situation in juxtaposition to the ever-growing instability in eastern India influenced the subsequent decision of the Indian state to intervene militarily in the conflict in East Pakistan. By the middle of 1971 Indiawas actively aiding and fuelling the rebellion inEast Pakistan, and helped in the creation of the Mukti Bahini which became the main military machinery of the rebels.

The military intervention of Indiain the conflict was a logical culmination of events. This was an early instance of the modern pretext of “humanitarian intervention” to cover aggressive expansionism. All-out military intervention took place only at the fag end of the war in December 3rd 1971. This was a final blow to the teetering Pakistani army and led to the surrender of 91,000 Pakistani soldiers, which was the largest surrender of any force since the 2nd world war. Dhaka was placed under the command of the Indian military for a time and the nascent armed forces ofBangladesh became an arm of the Indian state. Whilst the losses to the Indian armed forces were light compared to the Pakistani side and the Bengali militia army, the Pakistani crackdown had resulted in the deaths of up to 3 million Bengali civilians. The military intervention ofIndia achieved several goals at one strike. On the one hand, it was a massive display of Indian military power on a regional level – “shock and awe” – whilst on the other;  it created a proxy regime of the Indian state on its eastern frontier. The victory of the rebels over Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh opened a vital corridor for India to penetrate into South East Asia, and consolidate its hold over north easternIndia. It enhanced India’s prestige on an international level and concretized the emerging alliance with the Soviet Union. For the people of Bangladesh, it meant the super-imposition of the Indian bourgeoisie’s own puppet government in complete conflict with the socialistic aspirations of the people ofBangladesh. The victory of liberation soon turned sour as the new government headed by Mujib turned into a one party state giving the Awami League an authoritarian control of the country.

It was however deemed a National government and was joined by the Communist Party and the National Awami Party. The Communist party’s cadre was continually persecuted by the new regime which also unleashed a wave of repression against leftist forces inBangladesh. The highlight of this dark period was the killing of 4 activists who supportedVietnamin police fire and the killing of the Maoist leader Siraj Shikder. To add to the woes of the nascent government, a crippling famine took place inBangladeshwhich led to a million deaths. The famine was the last straw and led to the collapse of the Mujib government and subsequently to his assassination by a section of the Bangladesh Army. A military coup led by general Zia ul Haq followed a failed attempt by the left wing military leader lieutenant Abu Taher and his party the Jatiya Samajtantrik Party to capture power. The events following 1971 sealed the fate of the country and destroyed the socialist struggle which was emerging from the democratic struggles there. Tendencies towards a socialist revolution had already begun to show during the course of events in the run up to all-out war in 1971 with organs of dual power emerging in East Pakistan and Karachi in 1969. After the famine of 1974 another wave of mass upheavals rocked Bangladesh culminating in a general strike in 1975 thanks in good part to the activities of Siraj Shikder in the countryside. He was assassinated soon after the failed uprising of 1975. The dictatorship of General Zia Ul Haq followed this, and thereafter another military dictatorship by General Ershad.

Some conclusions:

From the above overview of the events of the Bangladesh liberation struggle we may draw some conclusions regarding the present struggle in Libya.

1) The national liberation of Bangladesh began as a just democratic struggle which tended towards a socialist revolution. Following the foreign intervention (byIndia) a comprador bourgeoisie was allowed to hijack the entire process and ultimately undermine and destroy the struggle for a revolutionaryBangladesh. In Libya at present, such a process of imperialist sponsored hijacking is underway which threatens to derail the revolutions not only inLibyaitself but in North Africa andWest Asia.

2)  The Bangladesh liberation war saw a wide split in the left globally along the lines drawn between Maoism and Soviet-based Stalinism. But with this question was clubbed the question of defencism and defeat. Though the aspects of defeatism and defencism were more peripheral in relation to the question of national liberation, it is most definitely emerging as a central question in case of the present Libyan struggle. Libya like Pakistanis a highly stratified society composed of various tribal factions with dramatically varying degrees of loyalty to the Gaddafi regime. While the geographic difficulties aren’t as overarching for Libya as they were for Pakistan(whose eastern and western provinces were separated by over2000 milesofIndian Territory), the stratification of Libyan society would necessarily prove problematic. As of now the most problematic question before the left is in relation to calling for the defense or the defeat of Gaddafi. To be fair, Gaddafi and the old Libyan state cannot be compared to that of Pakistan. Among other things, the Libyan state in its present form emerged from struggles against imperialist oppression, whilst Pakistan itself was a product of imperialism and for much of its life has been a carrier of imperialism regionally and beyond. Deciding whether to call for the defeat of Pakistan in its war against the justified national liberation struggle of the Bengali people would not have been a very difficult question in that context, notwithstanding the direct intervention of India. However, when it comes to the defense of Libya against imperialist attacks by the EU and NATO, a whole historical question is brought to the fore which of necessity must include the past struggles of Libya against imperialism in which Gaddafi played a role of critical importance. From this would emerge a fairer more balanced characterization of the present struggle. The defense of the independent state of Libya against the forces of imperialism as such cannot, in my opinion be extended to the defense of the regime headed by Colonel Gaddafi. If that were so, why not defend Pakistan to the point of opposing the national liberation of Bangladesh?

3) It is a fact that during the 1971 war India also used military force against the western wing of Pakistan. Recently exposed documents reveal that Indira Gandhi had detailed plans for the complete annexation of Pakistan and held back only after the warnings of the Soviet premier who was under pressure from US president Nixon! To draw a parallel between this situation and that of Libya, we would stand opposed to the Indian aggression againstPakistanin the west which was directed towards securing Indian ambitions of imperialism. We would also stand against the Indian intervention in the eastern flank of Pakistan and oppose the treaties between India and the new regime inBangladeshwhich sought to subjectBangladeshto Indian interests. Similarly, in Libya we stand against the imperialist intervention of the EU and NATO. We are steadfastly opposed to this attempt to hijack and derail the struggles of the Arab peoples. But that should not stop us from identifying these struggles from a historical point of view as a democratic struggle against Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime. The regime has by now clearly lost all its progressive features. The struggle as it stands in Libya is inextricably linked with the processes which emerged inEgyptmonths earlier which tend towards a socialist revolution. To deny the validity of the present democratic struggle in Libya is to deny its potential evolution into a socialist struggle. As of now the two greatest enemies of the revolution inLibyaare the imperialist camp and its proxy Trans National Council. But this does not change the chief content of the struggle against the Gaddafi regime. Just as the chief content of the struggle in East Pakistan was for the liberation of Bangladesh.

Should we revolutionaries dissociate ourselves from the fundamental content of a struggle our chances of securing the leadership of the masses would be zilch! The course of the struggle of the Libyan masses determines our position in the revolutionary struggle, which is nothing less than a struggle with the forces of the compradors of the TNC and the petty bourgeois leadership of Gaddafi for the leadership of the Libyan masses. Our struggle inLibyalike everywhere else is the struggle for revolutionary leadership. And by virtue of historic necessity, it forces us to align ourselves with the struggle to overthrow the Gaddafi regime which has been and remains the overarching goal of the ongoing Libyan revolution. In Bangladesh the struggle for liberation was achieved in success despite the fact of the Indian intervention, and despite the fact of the subservience of the bourgeois forces toIndia. The realization of an independent Bengali nation overthrowing the oppression of the Pakistani state was great progressive achievement of the people which would have naturally transcended further, but was held back. The same forces which led the liberation struggle ultimately ended up betraying it. The same would be expected from the forces which now lead the TNC  in Libya and would behave no differently. The Libyan masses however, are not so easy to tame, more so owing to the fragmented nature of Libyan society and inter-tribal rivalries. The Libyan masses must brace themselves now for a new round of struggles once; Gaddafi is defeated, to the new imperialist proxies which lead the Trans National Council.


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