Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wave of Revolution Spreads to Libya

The stunning wave of popular protest in the Middle East continues. The latest reports suggest that the 40+ year dictatorship of Muammar El Qaddafi is about to fall. Cities like Benghazi in the east of the country are rumored to be under the control of a popular uprising; Libyan diplomats worldwide are renouncing Qaddafi; and Qaddafi's military is apparently splitting under his orders to repress the uprising with live fire and bombs. The BBC radio today claimed two Libyan jet fighters defected to Malta rather than follow their orders to fire on protesters. Hundreds of people are rumored to have been killed.

Economists are raising concern about Libya's stability, because despite Libya's one-time anti-imperialist posturing it is today a key oil supplier to Europe. The economies of former colonial powers Italy and the U.K. are intertwined with Libya's. See the always insightful Lenin's Tomb ("A Regime in Mortal Freefall") for the story of how Libya "came in from the cold" and traded in its leftwing posturing in return for better relations (lots of money) with the West. (Cahokian readers can see plenty of evidence of Libya's strained relationship with the U.S. in my "Anti-American Art" series in stamps which document the US bombing raid on Libya in 1986). European countries are freaking out at the events in Libya, worried that the flow of oil will be replaced by a flow of asylum seekers. Europe has always preferred docility in its southern neighbors.

Qaddafi came to power in a 1969 military coup that overthrew a Kingdom that had been set up in a process of decolonization following World War II. He assumed first the mantle of Arab nationalism and later Pan-Africanism. He developed a self-serving faux egalitarian ideology that accused political parties of being anti-democratic. So of course they were banned. Not officially the ruler of the country, he is the Great Man and Brother Leader, who guides the "people's authority" that has titular role of what he calls "The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." But his messianic ideology of mass autonomy is all for show, window dressing on a hard-fisted military dictatorship. He has of late championed African unity, and making the United Nations more representative, both of which seem completely self-serving.

In the Libyan story there's a cautionary tale for leftists. In the 1970s Qaddafi tried to use his oil wealth to buy supporters. Among various adventures supporting revolutionaries, he bankrolled the English Workers Revolutionary Party of Gerry Healey, a hitherto Trotskyist Party, which soon began to promote the Green Book, the impenetrable bible of Qaddafi's ideological pretension. (The WRP was notable at the time as home to actors Corin and Vanessa Redgrave; Vanessa Redgrave's heroic defense of the Palestine Liberation Organization is sadly tainted by the corrupt relationship of her faction to this faux revolutionary dictator). Ultimately the WRP was accused of spying on Libyan (and Iraqi) dissidents in England and sending reports back to Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. I actually remember back in the late 1970s when I was active on the left how the American supporters of the WRP, called the Workers League, started acting like complete kooks. At the same time they had a major slander campaign that the leadership of the also-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party were actually police spies and Russian agents, so the addition of Qaddafi's Green Book to their literature tables just seemed like icing on a bizarre cake.

There's an excellent blog post by David Osler that warns against taking the self-professed anti-imperialism of otherwise questionable figures too seriously: "There is one obvious moral in all this for revolutionary socialists; if you align yourself with people like this, you are reneging on the basic understanding that the emancipation of the working class is an act of the working class itself, not of any old hoodlum who espouses populism of Islamic colouration. And no matter how much money you get for it, it isn’t worth it."

Qaddafi is the last of the old-school left-talking military rulers in the Middle East. Hopefully he hasn't completely poisoned the well of hope that real, democratic socialism represents.

(Scan of 2010 Libyan stamp showing Qaddafi and his "people's assembly" from "Updates and Stamp News from the Middle East" blog.)

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