The strength and the limitations of the revolutionary process in North Africa and Middle East

[Originally published by LIT-CI here ; link

The revolutionary process initiated in the late 2010 in North Africa and Middle East is still one of the centres of the world political situation.

As every revolution, it includes unprecedented combinations. As every complex process, it draws countless discussions. This text pretends to point out more general trends highlighting its already very evident limitations. We will also resume the discussions regarding this process.

Is there or is there not a revolution underway?

The discussion about what is going on in the region begins with the definition: is there or is there not a revolution underway? Right from the very beginning we assumed that this process was a revolutionary one which originated a polemic with the absolute majority of the left.

Trotsky postulated a classical definition of a revolution: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events… But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime… The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”(Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution) Most of the left cannot envisage a revolution underway in the region. They can see specific and momentary events, some “rebellions” as if they were some explosions of righteous anger, and then vanish. In this way, they miss out the global nature of what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East. When a revolutionary process begins, nothing remains the same; there are qualitative changes in the actual facts. And the actuality in that region is very different since the moment the revolutionary process began.

“Arab Spring.” And now what: Winter?

There is another discussion as to what is going on in that region. After almost four years, most of the world left – that never regarded these events as a revolution – consider the process as something finished for all practical purposes.

At first, these trends assumed the journalistic definition of “Arab Spring” to describe the democratic uprising that toppled such regimes as the Tunisian and Egyptian. Now they talk about “the end of the spring” and the beginning of “winter”.

However, a long and complex process as this one includes powerful and stubborn confrontations between revolution and counterrevolution, with ups and downs, with partial victories and defeats. This definition is richer than the simplified comparison with the sequence of seasons of the year.

There is a moment now marked by impasses and ebbs – quite different from the generalised ascent in 2011 – but there is also the opening of new battlefronts, such as those of the Kurds and the resuming of fight in Palestine and the rearrangements that these front cause.

There is a new moment in the civil war in Syria, with the military retreat of the opposition to Assad’s regime together with the military offensive of the government and the imperialist air attacks on the Islamic State.

In Iraq there is a new reality due to the Islamic State’s headway. There is a new civil war, this time it is a confrontation between two counterrevolutionary sectors: the Shiite administration linked to Iran against Islamic State. The struggle for oil fields control lies behind the civil war.

In Egypt, al-Sisi won the elections and launched a fierce attack on the workers increasing the fuel by 80%. It is quite likely that he will clash against a new outburst of strikes. The vicious invasion of Gaza by Israel was defeated by the Palestinian resistance and the global repudiation to the genocide of the Palestinian people.

The impasses of the moment reflect deep limitations

On the one hand, the revolution has heavy limitations to be rooted. In the first place because the working class still represent but a slight weight in the entire process. Secondly, because the revolutionary leadership is practically absent. This combination prevents the mass movement from making headway and opening a higher stage of the revolutions.

Taking advantage of these limitations, the imperialist counteroffensive and the violent repression by the dictatorships have more often than not forced the uprising to recede. But the counterrevolution also shows its own limitations. The continuity and the deepening of the economic crisis lead to increasing pauperisation of the masses. Day after day, the maintenance of the hated dictatorships renews the political radicalisation of the process. The result is the reactivation of the motivations of the revolution causing the ascent to be renewed after each defeat.

There has been neither definite defeat of the masses nor stabilisation in the region. The new Israeli defeat in its attempt to invade Gaza and the extension of the conflict to Turkey prove this.

To substitute the end of the revolution for the current moment of weakness and impasse is a catastrophic error, typical of petty-bourgeois impressionists.

Specific features of the revolutionary process

The development of the confrontations between the revolution and counterrevolution in these four years allows us to take note of some specific features and tendencies of this process.

There are factors in the region that make the conflicts deeper and more severe. In the first place, the biggest oil reserves in the world, strategic for imperialism, are to be found there.

Secondly, imperialist exploitation and oppression literally turn this rich oil region into a barrel of powder. After the peak of bourgeois nationalism as the Egyptian Nasserism and the Baath party (in Syria) in the 50’s of last century, there came a process of recolonisation by imperialism with the capitulation and association of local bourgeoisies. These corrupt and repressive bourgeoisies have an extremely luxurious life contrasted with the tremendous poverty of the majority of the population.

Thirdly, The Nazi fascist state of Israel is also to be found in the region. Even though it is true that Israel is a guarantee of the military domination of imperialism, it is also true that it is a factor of permanent political radicalisation, of conflicts and wars. Israel cannot coexist peacefully together with an Arab population opposing the usurpation of Palestinian territories.

Fourthly, the region was almost entirely dominated by despised dictatorships that ruled for decades before the revolutionary process. Vicious class antagonisms and national oppression in general cannot be solved within the framework of bourgeois democracy.

These structural elements have been very much affected by the economic crisis that began in 2007-2008. Unemployment increase, especially among the youth, as well as of the prices of basic consumption, made the discontent explode. Desperation and lack of perspective for a better future drove the masses to action.

It is no coincidence that the starting point of the entire process was the self-immolation of a door-to-door salesman in Tunisia when the police confiscated his fruit trolley. The protests that ensued spread throughout the country and set fire to the entire region.

Permanent revolution in the region

The process of permanent revolution in the region incorporates these factors. When workers and oppressed peoples of these countries fight against poverty they unconsciously challenge the exploitation and oppression by imperialism and the associated local bourgeoisies.

This economic, material background has not been solved by any of the bourgeois governments that have momentarily been imposed. The contrary is true: they merely worsened the political crises and the wars. The whole process is aggravated by the existence and actions of the State of Israel.

This is a revolution where the urban popular masses are the social subject, particularly the youth, the unemployed and precarious workers.

The proletariat is economically and socially important in several of these countries, such as Egypt and Iran. It is no coincidence that the of the 24,000-workers strike at the textile factory in Machala (Egypt) in 2006 inspired the foundation of the Movement 26th April, one of the engines of the revolutionary process that began in Egypt 2011.

In other countries, the influence of the working class is smaller. On the other hand, reformist leaderships are doing their best in order to avoid any independent proletarian role and so they broaden the backwardness in the level of awareness and in the organisation of the working class.

Urban popular masses are the social subject in these revolutions. In the midst of them, there were workers as individuals but not as an organised and leading class.

In most of the countries of the region, the democratic tasks became the central goals at first. This has nothing to do with the Stalinist stageist policy, where the permanent goal is to subordinate the proletariat to some sector of “democratic” or “nationalist” bourgeoisie.

This is all about the definition that for most of the countries, the centre of the programme at present is the fall of the dictatorships, clearing the path for the socialist revolution, in a similar way that Trotsky envisaged in the Spanish revolution, or in the Russian February revolution.

This allows the unity of action between those who fight these dictatorships, but at the same time imposes on us a constant struggle for proletarian hegemony of the revolutionary process and independent from the bourgeoisie. In the imperialist epoch, revolutions in backward countries start with minimum or democratic demands that the bourgeoisie is unable to comply, pushing the proletariat to lead these struggles, which can only be resolved with the seizure of power.

Another feature of the concept of permanent revolution is fundamental to understand the region and its international character: it is a whole region that is boiling, where processes interact with each other directly. The beginning of the Tunisian revolution quickly spread to neighbouring countries. Israel’s defeat in Gaza was celebrated throughout the region. The Kurdish struggle against IS affects the whole region, in particular Turkey and Syria.

Absence of revolutionary leadership

The mass movement leadership that emerged after the capitalist restoration in the European East are much more fragile because they are not strongly influenced by the proletariat. This is a general feature in the beginning of the century and in the region it is even more accentuated, not only because of the uneven presence of the proletariat from one country to another, but rather because of the lack of strong revolutionary organisations. All this often sterilises the heroic efforts of the masses in struggle.

The role of the traditional left organisations in the region, in particular of Stalinism, of capitulation to the bourgeois nationalism is a fundamental part of this situation.

Very often it is easier to seek religious, of race or of gender identities than of class. This results in fragmentation and in this particular region the Islamic religion predominates.

This region has been traditionally divided according to religious terms, which conceals particular bourgeoisie interests, mainly the dispute for oil resources.

The limits of the bourgeois democracy

In Latin America, a series of democratic revolutions defeated dictatorships in Argentina (1982), Brazil (1984), Uruguay (1985) bringing about a process that led to the establishment of bourgeois democratic regimes over most of the continent.

And yet, in the North Africa and the Middle East this did not happen. In the last four years the overthrow of dictatorships and the establishment of bourgeois democracies in most countries have not happened.

Convulsive processes with insurrections, civil wars, coups did take place but there was no establishment of bourgeois democracy. The same motives (oil, Israel) that originated the dictatorships make their fall more difficult. In Egypt, the Bonapartist regime was maintained even after the fall of Mubarak and Morsi.

In Libya, after the fall of Gaddafi, imperialism has been trying to rebuild the State, but so far they have not managed to stabilise any government, constantly challenged by militias from different groups.

In Iraq, the withdrawal of imperialist troops did not stabilise a national unity government as desired by imperialism, much less a bourgeois democracy. It was established a Shiite government aligned with Iran, with strong Bonapartist characteristics. The Sunni rebellion was capitalized by the Islamic state, and the country is experiencing a new civil war, now between two counterrevolutionary poles.

In Syria, the civil war goes on, now including the confrontation of the regime and imperialism with the Islamic State. In Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia a fierce repression managed to defeat the protests up to now.

The exception is Tunisia, where the Ben Ali’s administration was defeated as well as the dictatorial regime that used to rule the country.

Will these facts change due to the development of the situation as a whole? Yes, it can be. The revolutionary ascent can do lots of things. What we want to assert is that so far this has not been a generalised phenomenon.

Imperialist decadence imposes limits to its own intervention

American imperialism is hegemonic in economic, political and military terms. It is the only nuclear super power, which turns the possibility of a new world war remote at this stage.

But there is an element of reality that we need to analyse. The decline is of imperialism as a whole, not just the U.S. The resultant is that this hegemony is becoming more and more parasitic, with increasing subordination to the great financial capital.

Since its defeat in Vietnam in 1975, American imperialism has been losing its capacity to discipline the world in military terms. That defeat caused the “Vietnam syndrome”: the rejection by the American people of new wars that drive their children to death. While the American imperialism must coexist with bourgeois democracy, they need to respond to these pressures.

After the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, Bush started a counteroffensive to overcome this situation by using the alibi of “fighting against terrorism”. This, among other things, produced the invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).

The defeat of Bush’s counteroffensive, particularly in Iraq, resumed powerfully this reflex in American people, this time as “Iraq Syndrome”. This factor is still one of the imperialism’s limitations to intervene in the region.

As a rule imperialism responds to this reality with air attacks, avoiding the exposition of their troops by land invasions, or even outsourcing occupation to other countries, as in the case of Haiti.

At present, for example, imperialism would be in far better military conditions to demolish the Islamic State compared to the attack on Saddam Hussein in 2003. It cannot do so due to political conditions at home that were favourable after the Twin Towers, but not now. So, they have to restrain themselves to air raids.

Bourgeois Islamic trends

Islamic nationalism has been on the ebb tide since the 70s, from Nasserism of Sadat and Mubarak to the Baath party of Saddam Hussein and al-Assad.

After the capitulation to imperialism, the governments from that origin began to implement neoliberal plans in the region. This included Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq with dictators who became the target of the wrath of the masses as well as other administrations in the region.

Taking advantage of the dictatorships’ crisis, several traditional bourgeois Islamic parties took office and experienced important crises, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda in Tunisia. Perhaps this is what is now beginning to happen to Erdogan’s AKP in Turkey.

And yet, even if decadent, we cannot underestimate these trends due to their mass influence as well as the cyclical crises of their opponents.

Side by side with the people against the Syrian and Libyan dictatorships? Take no sides?

There is another big controversy with much of the left that arose with the outbreak of the revolutionary process in North Africa and the Middle East. When these demonstrations clashed with dictatorships as in Libya or Syria, a new issue was posed: stand with the fighting people or close to those hated dictatorships? This debate took even greater color when the fight has evolved to the military ground turning into civil wars in these countries.

Most of the left came out in defense of those dictatorships, denying the ongoing revolutions and reducing all to imperialist interventions to overthrow “anti-imperialist” governments. They purposely forgot all the capitulation to imperialism of those bourgeoisies, which abandoned their nationalist attitudes of the past to apply the neoliberal plans in their countries. The government of Assad and Gaddafi were supported directly by imperialism until the masses rebelled in these countries, and imperialism had to differentiate from them.

We suffered attacks in full Stalinist style and were accused of being “allies of imperialism” because we supported the peoples of these countries against their governments.

The Cuban and Venezuelan administrations, which supported these dictatorships, drew our attention to their attitude if great ascents dare to challenge them.

At this moment, the position of these trends once again collides with reality. Imperialist air raids against the positions of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria materialise an explicit alliance between Assad and the imperialist governments. According to the Lebanese paper Al Monitor, the U.S., “which lack reliable allies in Syria, may contemplate the regime as the only force capable of holding back the Islamic state in the north of the country”, so they can see no problem “in letting it occupy areas of Aleppo and its peripheries.”

That is why it is important to ask, “Who is the ally of imperialism at this moment?”

The trends dubbed Trotskyist, such as PTS and SoB put an equals sign between the Assad dictatorship and sectors that rose in arms against it and did not take any sides in this revolution. Remaining neutral in the face of something relatively obvious as the struggle of masses against despised dictators is certainly a very serious error.

Failing to see the difference between the fighting masses and their bourgeois or reformist leaders is a foul manner to start any analysis of any process. But even if it were wrong anywhere else, it is even more so in such complex process as that of the Middle East and North Africa, where there are no revolutionary leaderships.

Sectarians are not always ultra-left. In this case, these trends have adopted an opportunist posture. They end up by objectively helping the ruling dictatorships and placing as the left wing of the Castro-Chavista block to attack these revolutions.

Our demand of weapons for the Syrian rebels and weapons for the Kobane people is rooted in the Trotskyist tradition in the Spanish revolution, stained by these trends.

Militaries still in office in Egypt

In Egypt, the military regime obtained a victory with the election of Marshal al-Sisi in May 2014. It was the expression of the continuity of the military regime even after the collapse of the Mubarak and Morsi administrations. The recent absolution of Mubarak was just another piece of evidence of this continuity.

But the 54% abstention in the election of al-Sisi evidenced an important degree of erosion of the regime. An enquiry carried out before al-Sisi took over shows that there is quite a broad degree of discontent with the institutions as a whole. Egyptians are more dissatisfied (72%) than satisfied (24%) with the general situation of the country. The militaries had 88% of support of the population after the fall of Mubarak; 73% after the fall of Morsi and 56% with al-Sisi in the office. The Brotherhood, who used to have 53% of support before their collapse, now stand at 42%.

Once in the office, al-Sisi increased the price of fuels between 40% and 79% which caused an increase in several other prices and making dissatisfaction to accrue.

The working class, of great import in the country, carried out a wave of strikes in February this year (2014) that went as far as rushing the fall of Hazem el-Beblawi administration. Now, faced with this new attack, may manifest once more heavily.

A new civil war in Iraq

In Iraq, American imperialism was defeated by the Iraqi resistance and their troops had to retreat in 2011.

This was expressed in the character of the Shiite Prime minister Nuri Malaki’s government. It was not established as a mere puppet of imperialism, but as part of an agreement with the Iranian Shiite dictatorship. This alternative looked like the best thing to guarantee some stability and to weaken the Iraqi resistance, mainly the Sunni (Saddam Hussein’s ethnicity) something that, at that moment, was in American interest as much as in Iranian.

The U.S. policy was for a national unity administration that would include the Shiite, the Sunni and the Kurds, but Maliki, interested in the exclusive control over oil, carried out an administration of exclusion of the other sectors.

This facilitated the crisis and the Sunni rebellions that ended by being capitalised by ISIS (later on Islamic State), a counterrevolutionary bourgeois alternative. In a rapid offensive, ISIS defeated the Iraqi army fitted out by the U.S. – who fled in disgrace without a combat, and began their control of the Sunni territory of Iraq.

The fall of Maliki, who was substituted by a new administration led by al-Abadi, aims at resuming the imperialist proposal of a government of national unity (with a Sunni vice-president) in order to oppose the Islamic State.

But the civil war goes on. The threat of the division is still posed with the constitution of the Caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State.

The Syrian impasse

The brutal offensive by Assad, supported by Hezbollah, and the activity of the Islamic State weakened the military resistance against the dictatorship. The death toll of the civil war is almost 200,000, plus six million dislodged people and three million living in other countries.

The presence of a fifth column – the forces of the Islamic State – turned the military situation extremely complicated. With the proclamation of the Caliphate, the IS began to challenge Assad’s government directly. As from that moment on, an imperialist air raid began in explicit alliance with Assad.

The Free Army of Syria, the Islamic Front and the Revolutionary Front had to fight the Syrian State supported by Hezbollah on the one hand and, on the other hand, the powerful army of the Islamic State. The military retreat of the opposition is due to this double cause.

And yet, in spite of its overwhelming military superiority, the regime did not manage to annihilate the revolution. Not even the area surrounding the capital – Damascus –is completely controlled by the Assad dictatorship.

The truth is that paying an increasing sacrifice, the anti-dictatorial forces keep up the struggle, controlling important areas, such as parts of Aleppo and Idlib, peripheral areas surrounding Damascus and in the neighbourhood of Homs. Recently they asserted that they had advanced in military terms between the southwest of Damascus, Dara and Kuneitra, and reopened the way toward Lebanon borders.

The leadership of this opposition is bourgeois and pro-imperialist. The so-called National Coalition for the Forces of the Opposition and the Syrian Revolution (CNFORS) openly supports the imperialist intervention in the region.

Even the sectors directly linked to the armed struggle have not been able to unite the struggle against the regime. The formation of the Council of the Command of the Revolution that unites the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) can be a step ahead from this point of view.

A new counterrevolutionary factor: the Islamic State

With their military headway in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State proclaimed the Caliphate, with a territory that goes from Diyala in the east of Iraq up to Aleppo in the North of Syria. In an attempt to establish a State with religious reference to Islamic caliphates of the 7th century, al-Baghadi proclaimed himself as the continuation of Mohamed.

Actually, this is not at all a religious war, despite the ideological Sunni background. The caliphate of the Islamic State is a dictatorship with fascist methods of terrorism in order to paralyse the opponents, and whose main target is to control a significant part of oil in the region.

By the control of oil fields, the IS would achieve a yearly revenue estimated at between US$ 600 and US$ 800 million, which can fund their need to heavy weaponry (essentially modern tanks and artillery). As the IS became strong enough to confront the Iraqi and Syrian states directly and now they are trying to build up a new state, imperialism must now face them.

The defeat of Israel in Gaza

The Nazi-fascist state of Israel invaded Gaza trying to take advantage of that moment of relative ebb of the Arab revolution. But the fiery Palestinian resistance and the increasing isolation all over the world determined their defeat.

Even with the support of the imperialist media, it turned impossible to avoid the repudiation of the global public opinion against the Palestinian genocide perpetrated by Israel. Radicalised demonstrations of Palestinian youths threaten to turn the protests into a third Intifada.

Israel had to withdraw without having destroyed the military structure of Hamas and was forced to start negotiations for the end of Gaza’s blockade. Israel defeat produced a crisis in that country’s administration and strengthened Hamas.

However, Hamas advanced in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority tending to the acceptation of the State of Israel and that it should be the Fatah who would control the accesses to Gaza. The crisis of Israel continues: now the Netanyahu administration had to dismiss ministers who did not agree with the proclamation of the Jewish character of the State of Israel and issued a summons to elections in order to deepen the racist guideline. The countries of the European Union who support Zionists but defend a negotiated solution, made a symbolic gesture in order to press Netanyahu to acknowledge the Palestinian State.

Libya: still in crisis

Since the collapse of the Gaddafi’s dictatorship, imperialism has been trying to recompose the Libyan State. They have not yet achieved their goal. There are still no Armed Forces that can have an upper hand over the different militias or an established political regime with a minimum of stability.

After successive administrations in crisis, last June 2014 elections gave rise to a civilian government opposed to the Islamic hegemony of the previous congress. The new administration had to function in Tobruk, near the borderline with Egypt until the old government, still installed in the capital Tripoli could be dissolved.

There are two governments now, two congresses disputing their legitimacy in the country. But, while the mass movement hasn’t built a leadership independent from the bourgeoisie to impose their government the counterrevolution cannot stabilise the country.

The progressive struggle of the Kurds

The Kurds are one of the most numerous oppressed people without a state of their own. Their population of about 40 million people is spread over the territories of four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Theirs is a just struggle for the right to national self-determination and the creation of a single Kurdish nation. From this point of view, the struggle of the Kurds against the IS, the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian governments is just and progressive in spite of their bourgeois and pro-imperialist leaderships that have to be faced by the exploited classes.

Kobane is a Kurdish city in Syria, next to the border with Turkey. The heroic resistance of the Kurds who live there against the siege made by the IS must be supported by revolutionaries around the world. In spite of the military superiority of the IS, the Kurdish resistance partially managed to force the occupation out of the neighbourhoods of the city. An extremely progressive agreement was reached between the General Command of the YPG (Kurdish militias) and the Free Syrian Army to fight the IS.

This battle polarised the entire region, destabilised Turkey and is making the first great defeat of the IS possible.

Turkey is getting destabilised

At present, Turkey is going through a turbulent integration in the conflict in the Middle East.

In 2013, Erdogan’s AKP, an Islamic bourgeois party, faced huge student demonstrations. Nevertheless, they were defeated and Erdogan (who was then Prime Minister) was elected president in August 2014. Right now the regional process joins the battle due to the Kurdish question. The AKP administration has a practical policy of alliance with the IS in Kobane in order to prevent the strengthening of the Kurdish struggle in Turkey.

For decades now, the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani – KurdistanWorkers’ Party) has been fighting an armed struggle for the Kurdish self-determination. Erdogan prevents Kurdish voluntaries from crossing the border to join the Kobane battle and stops any weapons from being sent.

The outcome of this was a Kurdish uprising in Turkey, accompanied by a significant mass movement and Erdogan encouraged fascist bands to attack Kurdish mobilisations against his government. The Syrian conflict is destabilising Turkey.

Tunisian exception

Tunisia is the country where the revolutionary process began in December 2010 and also the country where the first great victory was achieved with the fall of the dictator Ben Ali in January 2011.

The first elected government was that of the Islamic bourgeois nationalist Party of the Rebirth (Ennahda), similar to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This government was defeated by a people’s revolt followed by a general strike after a leader of the reformist opposition, Chokri Belaid, was murdered in 2014.

A Constituent Assembly was elected and it produced one of the most liberal constitutions in the region: it ensures religious freedom, without any lasharia (religious law) imposed, freedom of expression and legal equality between men and women.

In new elections, “Summons for Tunisia”, a secular bourgeois coalition with links to the old officials of the Ali dictatorship won. They ran as an alternative to the Islamism of Ennahda. The new government will have to face the same economic crisis that was one of the basic causes for the beginning of the revolutionary crisis four years ago. Unemployment is still about 16% of the population and 40% among the youth.

Unlike the rest of the region, in Tunisia a dictatorship fell and was replaced by a bourgeois democratic regime.

A revolutionary process with structural impasses and limitations

As we have seen, the impasses and limitations of the revolution in North Africa and Middle East have structural reasons related to the absence of revolutionary leaderships and the slight role played by the proletariat.

On the other hand, neither imperialism nor the local bourgeoisies have been able to provide a solution to the economic crisis and the poverty of the masses. They can neither annihilate the masses violently nor stabilise any government.

There have various attempts at defeating the masses violently. Imperialism has tried it by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel has tried when its army invaded Lebanon in 2006 and more recently Gaza. Assad is now trying to do the same thing in Syria. None of these attempts proved successful so far.

On the other hand, neither has imperialism, as we have already seen, bet on democratic reaction in order to divert the mass movement towards bourgeois democracy.

The outcome is a convulsive process that cannot be stabilised either by the defeat or by partial victories. An extremely contradictory and complex reality and a great challenge for the revolutionary left. But above all, it is a region that is still one of the centres of the world revolution.

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Contradictions of the Libyan revolution and parallels with Bangladesh 1971


Introduction:

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.