Alex Callinicos asks us to celebrate NATO’s war on Libya

Black Libyan African woman protests at treatment by the NTC in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square
Photo: Black Libyan African woman protests at treatment by the NTC in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square

The 29 October edition of Socialist Worker carries an article by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) leading member Alex Callinicos entitled ‘West’s role in the dictator’s downfall shouldn’t stop us celebrating.’ Callinicos compares Colonel Gaddafi to the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini and says that Gaddafi, like Mussolini, was killed by ‘popular militias’, adding ‘we should have no qualms in joining the Libyan people’s celebrations of their tyrant’s demise’. Callinicos celebrates along with NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen who described the war on Libya as ‘a successful chapter in NATO’s history’ creating ‘a new Libya based on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law’, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said, ‘We came, we saw, he died’, then laughed.

After repeated NATO attempts to kill Colonel Gaddafi his murder on 20 October was a depraved act. Among the final images from Gaddafi’s life is a scene with a dark-skinned man tethered to a pole in the background. Callinicos’ ‘popular militias’ have been and are committing ethnic cleansing and racist murder against black African Libyans. It is a travesty that this supposed socialist should join in the demonisation of Colonel Gaddafi with which the bourgeois politicians and media justified their war on Libya.

NATO said it was going to stop a massacre and then committed one. It flew approximately 28,000 sorties or an average of almost 133 a day for nearly eight months and killed between 50,000 and 70,000 people. Sirte, a town that once had approximately 100,000 people, is now almost completely deserted and looks like Hamburg after the Allies firebombed the city in July 1943. Tawargha, a town of 25,000 mainly black African people, ‘no longer exists’, according to one of the militia’s commanders, its inhabitants dead or scattered from Tripoli to Benghazi. In September Amnesty International said it was concerned at ‘increasing cases of violence and indiscriminate arrests against the people of Tawargha’. Many of Tawargha’s people were descendants of former slaves. Andrew Gilligan, for The Sunday Telegraph, visited the town and found slogans daubed by the militia, ‘The brigade for purging slaves [and] black skin’, (11 September 2011). Several hundred black Libyan refugees protested in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square that they had been held in camps for over two months, that women had been abducted from the camps, others raped and that men had been seized and disappeared. Human Rights Watch reported, ‘We found 53 decomposing bodies, apparently Gaddafi supporters, at an abandoned hotel in Sirte, and some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot.’ This is a war crime. Mass graves are being discovered, the militias are fighting each other – are these what Callinicos wants us to celebrate?

On 23 October the leader of the National Transitional Council (NTC) Mustafa Abdul-Jalil proclaimed the liberation of Libya and announced ‘we adopted sharia as the principal law’; laws protecting women will be removed and polygamy reintroduced. Libyan women’s groups have protested. Should we have ‘no qualms’ about this, Alex Callinicos? On 31 October the NTC installed Abdurrahim al-Kreib as the new prime minister. This man was flown back to Libya from the United Arab Emirates where he served as a professor at the Petroleum Institute, which is funded by BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total. French, US, Canadian and British firms are queuing up to grab Libya’s oil. The British government’s UK Trade and Investment estimates that oil, gas, reconstruction and education contracts worth $320 billion are coming up for bids in the coming decade.

Benito Mussolini’s corpse was put on display, as was Colonel Gaddafi’s. However, Callinicos presents his readers with supposed similarities between the ‘highly contradictory ways’ of the two figures. This is a deception. Mussolini was a leader of an imperialist power, a racist and a fascist who supported Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war, who idealised war and launched the invasion of Ethiopia and then led Italy into the Second World War on the side of the Nazis. Mussolini was captured and executed by Italian partisans. Gaddafi was the leader of an oppressed nation, formally colonised by Italy and then run by Britain and France. The Libyan state repressed internal opposition and collaborated with the US rendition programme against Islamists. However, it achieved the highest life expectancy, lowest infant mortality rate and highest UN Human Development Index in Africa. It was for the Libyan people and them alone to deal with their government, not NATO and the British ruling class.

A decisive moment in the history of socialism came at the outbreak of the First World War. Kautsky and parties of the Second International followed their national bourgeoisies into the war. British so-called socialists backed the British state in the name of opposing Prussian militarism and for the defence of democracy and German socialists backed the German state to oppose the British monopolists and colonialists and Russian tsarism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks denounced them both and explained that the war was an imperialist war for possessions by the British, German, French and Russian ruling classes and had to be opposed by socialists and working class internationally. The point was to oppose the imperialist bourgeoisie of your own nations.

Writing a feature article in May 2011’s Socialist Review entitled ‘Imperialism and revolution in the middle east’ the SWP’s Richard Seymour avoids taking up the issue of British imperialism and focuses on US imperialism instead. This is shameful and revealing at a time when the British state was directing the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and special forces against Libya. Seymour makes it plain that he supports the initial revolt against the Libyan government. His Party did nothing to oppose the British state’s war on Libya, did nothing to oppose the war waged by the British ruling class. Dressed up in socialist rhetoric and all sorts of paeans to the working class, Seymour and Callinicos, like their Socialist Workers’ Party, stand in the traditions of Kautsky and the Second International. They supported the British troops entering the North of Ireland in 1969, they repeatedly criticised the ANC when it was fighting apartheid in South Africa, they use every opportunity they get to denounce socialist Cuba and they celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union and socialist countries of central and eastern Europe as a victory for the working class – never as a victory for imperialism. Callinicos and his Party argue that with Colonel Gaddafi out of the way the workers can organise and fight for socialism. The reality is that what they do is demobilise potential opposition to imperialism among people here in Britain and whenever required they call for a vote for the war-mongering Labour Party.

Callinicos and his Party ask us to celebrate barbarism and, for now, a triumph for imperialism. This has nothing to do with democracy and helping the working class of the Middle East and North Africa. The SWP represent a chauvinist trend within the working class. They must be challenged and overcome if an anti-imperialist and socialist movement is ever to be built in Britain.

Trevor Rayne


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