Counterfire and counterrevolution in Libya

NATO bombs Tripoli

By David Fennell

As NATO launched its final air bombardment and military assault on Tripoli (because of course the entire coordination of the attack was done with total NATO involvement) every major imperialist of the world cheered. The Interim Transitional National Council (ITNC), having already been feted in Washington, London, Paris and other imperialist capitals, was then summoned for a new round of ‘consultations’ – that is to work out with the imperialists how their joint interests might be further advanced. In short imperialism was victorious in the war in Libya. Regrettably the British political organisations Counterfire and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had been on the same side in this war as the imperialists despite it being clear what was occurring.

It is not useful to the struggle to make a big issue out of tactical differences on the left – these are inevitable and it is a bane of the British left, showing its low level and sectarianism, that it engages in constant splits over them. But a war is something quite different. The first duty of a Marxist in war, as in every class struggle, is to know which side you are on. Therefore it is necessary to look at why Counterfire and the SWP were on the same side of a war as imperialism.

The Marxist position on wars

If a war is between two groups of imperialists Marxists refuse to militarily support either side – World War I being the most famous example. But Libya was not an example of a struggle between two imperialist states but a conflict with all imperialist powers aligned on one side – that of the ITNC.

This alignment of social forces in the war in Libya was clear. The ITNC were entirely dependent on the imperialists for their armed strength – including more than 8,000 NATO air strikes on Libya, their diplomatic support – the campaign of ‘international recognition’ for the ITNC, their financing – the releasing of funds by the imperialists for the ITNC, and their military leadership – with ‘special forces’ of the imperialist armies guiding the NATO airstrikes, planning the ITNC’s military campaigns, and participating in the assault on Tripoli.

As seen in the orgy of pro-imperialist celebration and justification since Tripoli fell, the imperialists perfectly understand they have won a victory. The rewriting of oil contracts to further serve imperialist economic interests is already being prepared. The lick-spittle apologists of ‘liberal humanitarian imperialist interventions’ are claiming we must forget the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan and that Libya shows how ‘progressive’ imperialism can be.

Anyone who has read Marx or Lenin, or anyone who derives their positions from them (whether it is Trotsky, Mao, Castro or anyone else) knows the correct position on this. It is scarcely a new one – anyone who wants a good starting point can take the ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’ adopted by the Second Congress of the Communist International in July 1920! In a war waged by the imperialists against a semi-colonial country, Marxists, and any other progressives, are for the defeat of the imperialists.

The reasons for this are simple. The imperialists are the biggest threat to humanity. Their crimes (slavery, World Wars I and II, fascism, the holocaust, Vietnam) couldn’t even be dreamed of by a local semi-colonial regime of Gaddafi’s type. Any victory the imperialists achieve throws back progress everywhere. A defeat for the imperialists, even by a semi-colonial regime which has nothing to do with the working class, weakens the imperialists. It isn’t that Counterfire or the SWP haven’t read Lenin and Trotsky (to take the particular Marxists they support) and don’t know that. How, therefore, could they justify in a war being on the side entirely dominated by and organised by imperialism?

The reality of war and social forces in Libya

The position of Counterfire on the military conflict in Libya was clear from the beginning and it never changed. On 5 March Counterfire’s analysis was headlined ‘Revolutionaries defend Brega as pro-Gaddafi forces attack. Jihan Hafiz speaks to resistance fighters in Brega, Libya after they repel pro-Gaddafi forces.’ That is, Counterfire was for the military victory of the side of the ITNC – which was, of course, the same side in the war as the imperialists. There was no change from Counterfire right to the end of the war.

To justify that position, Counterfire had to ludicrously misrepresent reality. Nearing the end of the imperialist offensive John Rees posed the following absurd issue: ‘So the question now posed is this: in whose interest will the new rulers of Libya act?’ If John Rees doesn’t know the answer to this question either he has lost his powers of reason or he has cut himself from all sources of information during the last months. The answer to ‘in whose interests the new leaders of Libya will act’ is determined by the alignment of forces that brought them to power. The ITNC was carried to power by the imperialists and they will act in the interests of the imperialists.

Similarly Joseph Daher claimed that the ITNC is ‘influenced by its dependence on Western powers’. The ITNC is not ‘influenced’ by Western powers. The only reason it is in power derives from ‘Western powers’ – which Daher ‘politely’ doesn’t call imperialist because if he wrote of the ITNC of its ‘dependence on imperialist powers’ it might have occurred to him that you can’t be on the military side of a force that is dependent on imperialist powers.

Everyone will now, of course, see in reality the answer to ‘in whose interest’ the new leaders of Libya will act. After all it isn’t that they haven’t bothered to think ahead – a 70-page document outlining the plan for the occupation of Tripoli in coordination with NATO and reactionary Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates was leaked during the conflict. The ITNC is scurrying to meet with the ludicrously named ‘Friends of Libya’ group (actually the ‘imperialist enemies of Libya group’) in Paris to coordinate efforts.

We will now see unfolding in Libya the attempt to implement these imperialist plans. The struggle of the Libyan people to deal with this will be difficult. Having got its fangs into Libya further via the ITNC, imperialism will have little intention of letting go. The character of this counter-revolution will become clear.

We do not mean by this, of course, that Counterfire or the SWP were unaware of the goals of the imperialists in Libya or had illusions in imperialism. As John Rees wrote correctly on 5 April: ‘The moment the UN passed the resolution to bomb Libya it was obvious what the West wanted: to get a foothold in the Arab revolutions and to maintain control of Libya’s oil.’ An article by Joseph Daher analysed different groups in the ITNC.

But in a war the issue has to be decided of which side you militarily support? As we have seen, Counterfire supported the side of the ITNC and the imperialists, i.e. they supported the side of the imperialist counter-revolution. The fact that Counterfire had criticisms of the ITNC, and don’t like imperialists, doesn’t alter that reality one bit. Normally the wrong analysis of Counterfire leads to wrong tactics in the British class struggle – which, as we said, people should not get over-excited about. But in this case, as with the SWP, it led to being militarily on the wrong side, on the imperialist side, in a war in one of the most central questions of world politics. That is a totally different order of issue. It remains to be seen whether this leads to discussion and reconsideration in the two organisations.


Do the above facts mean that people should not fight alongside Counterfire or the SWP on issues in the British or international class struggle? Not at all. The class struggle is much too serious for that.

Fortunately no one in Britain is currently suffering 8,000 NATO bombing raids. But they are suffering racist attacks and murders, unemployment, cuts in social services that will literally kill many people and worsen the lives of the majority. Nor will this be the last war launched by the imperialists – indeed the imperialist victory in Libya will make them more violent and aggressive. Against all these things it is necessary to struggle alongside Counterfire, the SWP and anyone else who will engage in that fight. But it is a grave and serious thing to have taken the wrong side, the imperialist side, in a war. It is greatly to be hoped that such an event will lead to a deep and serious reconsideration in both Counterfire and the SWP.

Finally, what theoretical analysis led them such a position? Particularly in the case of Counterfire, it is clear that it is because their theory is not Marxist – something dealt with previously here. Marxism understands that anything is determined by the totality of the forces acting in it. As Lenin put it in regard to class struggle in Left-Wing Communism: ‘the Communist Party… must act on scientific principles. Science… demands that account must be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country’.

Acting in the situation in Libya were not only the forces within that country but imperialist powers from outside it. Whatever were the original intentions of those fighting against Gaddafi’s regime, which doubtless from day one ranged from those fighting for liberty to puppets of imperialism, the side of ITNC was entirely seized control of by the imperialists. The imperialists therefore led the assault on Tripoli and therefore it was necessary to fight against them. That is what an analysis of the inter-relation of all class forces in Libya shows.

Furthermore that struggle is not yet entirely over. At the moment of writing the imperialists are extending their military campaign to Sirte and other cities – indeed just at the moment it is a purely imperialist onslaught. As The Guardian reported on 1 September: ‘While rebels observe a temporary truce around Sirte, the town continues to bear the brunt of Nato’s continuing bombardment of positions held by Gaddafi loyalists.

‘Thirteen targets were hit in the town on Wednesday, according to Nato’s latest update. I make that 147 targets hit in the town in the last week alone.

‘Bani Walid, the town south-east of Tripoli near to where Gaddafi was last sighted, was also hit in the latest raids.’

If the imperialists successfully continue their offensive against Sirte and other towns, they will then set about organizing the counter-revolution throughout Libya.

The reason Counterfire justified being on the same side of a military conflict as the imperialists is due to a non-Marxist theory which sees the class struggle not as resulting from the total contradictions of all classes in society but from some sort of populist unfolding of the masses – put vulgarly, if people are on a demonstration, or if there is a mass movement, it must necessarily be progressive. Regrettably this is not true – as Marx analysed from the 1848 revolutions onward. It is perfectly possible to have large movements which are either reactionary from the beginning or seized control of and manipulated by reaction and imperialism. It is not the fact that a lot of people are involved that makes a movement progressive, but which class benefits from its victory or defeat. In Libya imperialism has benefited from what has occurred and, regrettably, various people who wanted to try to be progressive were on the same military side as imperialism.

As was said at the beginning, the first task in a class struggle is to decide which side to support fighting for. Those who want to serve progress, and found themselves supporting the imperialist side in a war, should draw all the necessary conclusions from how they ended in that position and what mistaken theories led to it.