Revolution #226, March 8, 2011

Revolution Interviews Raymond Lotta: The Events in Libya in Historical Perspective... Muammar Qaddafi in Class Perspective... The Question of Leadership in Communist Perspective

Revolution: We're speaking at a time when the uprising in Libya is being met with brutal force by the Muammar Qaddafi regime. In Egypt, Mubarak stepped down under pressure of the mass revolt and the obvious prod from the military. So one of the big questions on people's minds is what's similar and what's different as between Libya and Egypt.

Raymond Lotta: It's an important place to start the discussion. The uprising in Libya is an expression of profound discontent in Libyan society. Broad sections of Libyan society, taking inspiration from events in Tunisia and Egypt, have risen against an oppressive regime. And this uprising in Libya is part of the wave of rebellion sweeping through the imperialist-dominated Middle East.

But when you compare events in Libya with those of Egypt, there are two major differences.

First, in Libya, you have a situation where imperialist intrigue is commingling with genuine and just mass upheaval. This makes things highly complicated.

In Egypt, the uprising was overwhelmingly a product of mass discontent against a U.S-backed client regime. But U.S. imperialism had a reliable base within the leadership and command structure of the Egyptian military. That military has been trained, financed, and equipped by the U.S. It's been the U.S.'s most vital asset in trying to stabilize the situation in Egypt to its advantage. I mean being able to stabilize from within the existing state apparatus... in order to maintain Egypt as a key flank of U.S. dominance in the Middle East. And the U.S. also has large, direct economic interests in Egypt.

Now the outcome of the uprising in Egypt has by no means been sealed. Protests are still erupting, people are debating what’s been accomplished and what hasn’t, and things are still in motion. But what I’m getting at is that U.S. imperialism has important capacities and assets inside Egypt.

That's not the case in Libya. You don't have that kind of military apparatus with such close ties to the U.S. The Libyan state structure—here I'm speaking of key ministries and sections of the security apparatus—is fracturing and splitting in response to the uprising and the pressures of imperialism. And the U.S. does not have the same kind of large economic holdings in Libya as it does in Egypt.

So this creates both necessity and opportunity for the U.S. and West European imperialists. They are reaching out to and seeking to bolster oppositional forces in Libya who might be the embryo of an entirely new neocolonial regime... one that would be a more pliant tool of Western interests. And it can't be ruled out that imperialist operatives have, from the very beginning of this uprising, been assisting some of the oppositional forces.

So as I said, while there is genuine and just mass upheaval, there are also significant elements of imperialist maneuvering involved. These are things that we need to analyze and understand more deeply.

Revolution: You mentioned two major differences.

Lotta: Yes. The second major difference between what's happening in Libya and the upheavals in other parts of the Middle East is Qaddafi himself. Muammar Qaddafi is not the same as Mubarak.

I know this is not the official story line of the State Department or the narrative put out on CNN about a crazed, autocratic ruler... but Qaddafi actually had popular support when he came to power in 1969, especially from sections of the intelligentsia and professional and middle classes. He had popular bases of support for many years of his rule.

For three decades, Qaddafi was viewed by many inside and outside of Libya as someone standing up for the genuine national interests of Libya... as someone who stood against imperialism and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

And the fact is... Qaddafi was for many years a real thorn in the side of imperialism, especially the U.S. Let's not forget that in 1986 Ronald Reagan launched fighter attacks and bombed Libya's two largest cities, tried to assassinate Qaddafi, and in the bombings killed one of his daughters.

Qaddafi is not the same as the openly servile Hosni Mubarak... even though the Qaddafi regime never fundamentally broke with or fundamentally challenged imperialism.

Revolution: This gets us into the history of Libya and Qaddafi. It would be helpful if you could provide some background.

Lotta: Well, Libya did not really exist as a unitary state until after World War 2. It gained its formal independence in 1951.

In the late 1500s, the coastal regions of what is today Libya were conquered by the Turkish Ottoman empire. In 1910, Italian imperialism moved to colonize the area of Libya. Libya is strategically located in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea. When Italy came to the imperialist banquet table, other colonial powers had already imposed their presence in the region. The British ruled Egypt. The French had colonized Algeria. From 1911 to 1943, Italy employed savage means to consolidate its rule in Libya. The historian Abdullatif Ahmida describes this as one of the most brutal colonizations of the 20th century.

Italy was on the losing side of World War 2. After the war, the U.S. and Britain put their weight behind a pro-Western constitutional monarchy in Libya headed by King Idris. He allowed the U.S. to set up Wheelus Air Base. It was one of the U.S.'s largest overseas military facilities... and the base was used for military training, missile testing, and for fighter and reconnaissance missions.

Revolution: Of course, Libya has been a major oil producer.

Lotta: Actually, it was only in 1959 that large oil deposits were discovered in Libya. U.S. and European companies moved in big time to set up production operations. The banking sector grew rapidly, especially after an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea was finished. Oil revenues soared through the decade of the 1960s. But the foreign oil companies were getting the lion's share of earnings. And what oil wealth did return to Libya... it was concentrated in the hands of a small mercantile, banking, and speculator elite.

Poverty remained widespread. And the opportunities for a new middle class growing in connection with the oil economy... they were limited. So, mass resentment against the Idris monarchy was growing.

Then you had the impact of regional and world events. In 1967, Israel attacked Egypt and Syria with the support of the U.S. In Libya, students, intellectuals, and workers organized mass actions and strikes. There were also protests against the U.S. war in Vietnam. Unrest was spreading in the face of the Libyan government's total subordination to the West.

In the 1960s, a wave of national liberation struggles—in Asia, Latin America, and Africa—was battering imperialism and shook the international order. This aroused literally hundreds of millions throughout the world to rise in resistance. This was a time when a new nationalist spirit was being stirred, when ideas of Arab unity against imperialism were taking hold. It was a time when revolutionary China was influencing social forces and Marxism-Leninism was a big part of the ideological discourse. But the fact that the U.S. was under this kind of siege also provided openings for many different class forces who had been held down by imperialism. They saw new possibilities.

Revolution: So this was setting the stage for Qaddafi.

Lotta: Yes. Qaddafi was part of a group of young army officers influenced by the pan-Arabist and social reformist ideas of Gamal Nasser, the leader of Egypt. Qaddafi came from poor desert-tribal origins, and other radical-minded officers came from lower-class backgrounds. The military was one of the few institutions in Libyan society that afforded them any chance of training and mobility.

These young army officers were outraged by the corruption and subservience of the ruling regime. They saw themselves as the bearers of a new Libya. And in 1969, they organized a coup against the King and constituted a new government out of what they called their Revolutionary Command Council.

Revolution: Maybe you could say more about the program of Qaddafi?

Lotta: Qaddafi argued that Libya's national sovereignty had been bartered away, that foreign capital had been allowed to dictate to the Libyan people. He accused the old order of squandering Libya's oil resources and doing little to alleviate the suffering of the Libyan people.

He forced the U.S. to accelerate its timetable for closing down Wheelus Air Base. He moved to nationalize banks. He made the government a major stakeholder in the oil industry. He promised to develop agriculture and industry and did direct some funds into these sectors. He enacted social programs in the 1970s that over the next 20 years led to real improvements in mass literacy, life expectancy, and housing. These actions and polices had popular support.

But for all of Qaddafi's anti-imperialist rhetoric, this whole project rested on the preservation and expansion of Libya's oil-based economy. It rested on Libya's continued insertion into the global capitalist system... its division of labor and international relations of exploitation.

Qaddafi relied heavily on Western Europe as a market for Libyan oil. He used oil revenues to buy French jets, to attract German manufacturing capital to Libya, and even to become a major investor in Italy's largest auto company. Italy, the old colonial power, was allowed to keep its operations going in Libya.

Revolution: You've focused on the economic base of Qaddafi's program, but what about the other dimensions of what he was doing?

Lotta: Qaddafi harnessed oil revenues to restructure society. He was creating a social welfare system with particular political features. He set up "people's committees" at local levels in order to widen his political support and to redirect tribal and clan loyalties toward the central regime. At the same time, he outlawed unions and independent political organization and muzzled press criticism of the regime.

He used oil revenues to build up a large security and military apparatus... both to put down any internal opposition to the regime and to project Libya as a political model and regional force in the Middle East and Africa.

Ideologically, the Qaddafi regime combined social welfarism and pan-Arabism with retrograde values. Islam was made the official state religion. Women had more opportunities than before, but patriarchal Sharia law was made the foundation of legal-social codes. Qaddafi was vehemently anticommunist... and claimed to be finding a third way between capitalism and communism.

The reality was that Qaddafi was creating a state capitalism... based on oil revenues and beholden to world imperialism for markets, technology, transport, and investment capital.

Revolution: You're saying there was nothing authentically radical about this project.

Lotta: Qaddafi was changing things, but within the existing framework of imperialist dominance, capitalist property relations, and a complex web of tribal loyalties and regional divisions.

There was nothing truly transformative in terms of breaking with imperialism. There was nothing truly transformative in terms of the masses having the kind of leadership and radically different political state power that could enable them to remake the economy and society in a truly liberating direction.

Bob Avakian has this very incisive formulation about "three alternatives" in the world. Now I am paraphrasing here, but he basically says this. The first alternative is to leave the world as it is... which is totally unacceptable. Or you can make some changes in the distribution of wealth and forms of rule, but leave the basic exploitative production and oppressive social relations of society and the world basically intact. That's the second alternative.

Or, and this is the third alternative, you can make a genuine revolution. A revolution that aims to transform all relations of exploitation, all oppressive institutions, all oppressive social arrangements, and all enslaving ideas and values... a revolution to overcome the very division of human society into classes. That third alternative is the world proletarian revolution to achieve communism.

Qaddafi's program, his social and economic model, fits into that second alternative that changes some aspects of the status quo but keeps the oppressive essence of existing social order the same.

Revolution: What comes across in the general coverage of Qaddafi, the indictment that's made, is that he is this ruthless "strongman."

Lotta: You know, this notion of the "strongman"... it's a "straw man." It obscures the essence, the class essence, of things. This is what Marxism enables us to understand.

Look, all societies at this stage of human history are divided into classes. Leaders don't float in some ether. They concentrate the outlook, the methods, and aspirations of different classes. Qaddafi and those military officers who took power in 1969, what I was talking about earlier... they represented and concentrated the outlook of a radicalized sector of the petty bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie of a nation oppressed by imperialism.

They felt stymied by imperialist subjugation. And from their class standpoint, the problem, as they saw it, was that Libya was getting a bad deal. They wanted to make market mechanisms, which are based on exploitation and the production of profit, somehow "work" for the benefit of the whole nation. They had this illusion that they would be able to wrench concessions from imperialism... and force imperialism to come to terms with them. But the fact is: global capitalism operates according to a definite logic and imposes its norms on these societies and economies.

These bourgeois nationalist forces claimed to speak for the whole nation. They saw their interests as being identical with the interests of all social classes in the nation. But there are dominant and dominated classes in these nations.

You know one of the slogans that Qaddafi raised, I think it's in his so-called "Green Book," was: "not wage earners but partners." In other words, here you have this system based on profit and integration into capitalist world markets, but somehow you could turn everyone into equal stakeholders. That was both populist rhetoric and illusion.

Wage earners, or proletarians, do not own means of production. In order to survive, they must sell their labor power to those who do command control over the means of production: the capitalists. The capitalist class exploits workers in the production process to make profit, and to continue to make profit on an ever-expanding scale. And when sufficient profit cannot be generated, wage-laborers are cast off. The basic condition of wage labor is its domination by capital and its subordination to the accumulation of capital. There is a basic antagonism between workers and capitalists.

In Libya, wage-labor is part of the foundation of the economy. In Libya today, there's 20 percent unemployment. The reality is that wage earners cannot be "partners" of capital.

Politically and ideologically, these aspiring bourgeois forces feared the basic masses... they feared that the masses would step beyond their reformist, let's-make-a-deal-with-imperialism program. And they tried to control and contain those on the bottom of society.

My point is that whatever idiosyncrasies Qaddafi might have... if you want to understand the Qaddafi program, you have to analyze the class interests and outlook that he represents and how those interests were interacting with the world situation. I mean, you can call Barack Obama "calm" and "worldly," or whatever, but what he's really about... is that he concentrates the exploitative and murderous interests of empire and the world outlook of an imperialist ruling class.

Revolution: Qaddafi held on for so long and did have those radical credentials.

Lotta: Yes. When Qaddafi consolidated power in the early 1970s, the regime had certain things going for it in world politics and world economics. To begin with, the U.S. was facing defeat in Vietnam and its global economic power was weakening. So that created some space.

Second, the Soviet Union was challenging the U.S. globally. Now the Soviet Union claimed to be socialist. But socialism in the Soviet Union had been overthrown by a new capitalist class in the mid-1950s. The Soviet Union became a social-imperialist power. By the mid-1970s, it was contending for influence and control in different parts of the world. Part of its global strategy was to build up client regimes in key areas of the Third World. The Soviet Union began offering economic aid, oil agreements, and diplomatic support to regimes like that headed by Qaddafi... and the Soviets became a major weapons supplier to Libya.

And there was a third factor. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the world oil industry was going through changes. The major oil companies were entering into new arrangements with oil producers in the Third World. Formal control over production was allowed to pass into the hands of Third World governments and their state oil companies. Imperialist domination was exerted through control over oil refining, marketing, technology, and finance. But now producer countries had more latitude at the production level... you have the Third World producers cartel, OPEC. And in the 1970s the price of oil was rising. These developments worked to Qaddafi's advantage.

Revolution: So all of this gave Qaddafi some maneuvering room economically and politically.

Lotta: Yes... but to do what? You see, bourgeois nationalist forces such as Qaddafi were neither willing nor able to lead the masses to break with imperialism and to carry forward a liberating social revolution. As I said, they chafed under imperialism but also feared the masses. Again, this has to do with their class nature of these rulers: they were held down by relations of imperialism but could not see beyond a world in which they control exploitative relations... rather than a world that has abolished exploitation.

So here you have Qaddafi... securing his hold on power... wheeling and dealing with imperialism...  and seeking to modernize an oil economy subordinated to the norms of world capitalist production. Over 95 percent of Libya's export earnings were coming from oil, and in the 1973-83 decade, Libya became one of the three largest weapons importers in the Third World. This was distorted and dependent development.

As things unfolded, these national bourgeois forces in power evolved into the core of an oppressive ruling bourgeois elite dependent on and tied into imperialism.

On the international stage, Qaddafi criticized conservative Arab regimes and presented himself as the real champion of the Palestinian people's rights. He voiced support for African liberation. This was part of his popularity.

Revolution: In the 1980s, Qaddafi was demonized by the U.S. imperialists as a mad-dog ruler.

Lotta: Yes, but this had nothing to do with the repressiveness of the regime or Qaddafi's style of rule. I mean the U.S. was propping up brutal client regimes and "strongman despots" in Central America—and their human rights violations made Qaddafi look positively benign. The problem the U.S. imperialists had with Qaddafi was his close ties to the Soviet bloc... the problem they had was assertiveness in supporting certain radical movements and groups that might benefit the Soviet bloc at a time when the rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet-led blocs was heading towards a global military showdown.

In the 1980s, the U.S. ramped up the vilification of Qaddafi. Reagan provoked aerial fights with Soviet-made Libyan jets off the Libyan coast and launched that military attack on Libya that I referred to earlier. The U.S. set out to punish the regime with economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures. U.S. oil companies suspended operations.

Now, as I have mentioned, Libya has been a significant energy supplier to Western Europe. This was a source of tension between the U.S. and the West European imperialists. I think there is strong evidence that Reagan's military attacks on Libya were also aimed at bringing the West European imperialists more closely into line, as the face-off with the Soviet social-imperialist bloc was intensifying.

Under U.S. pressure, the UN imposed sanctions on Libya. These moves to isolate Libya began to pinch Libya's economy and periodic declines in world oil prices hurt the economy as well. And Libya's oil industry was in need of upgrading and new investment.

Then in 1989-91, the Soviet Union and its bloc collapsed. This marked a qualitative shift in international relations. It knocked a lot of the wind out of Qaddafi's project. He no longer had this great power backing. And the demise of the Soviet Union gave the U.S. new freedom—and it moved to exploit this new freedom in the Middle East and other parts of the Third World.

In this changed situation, Qaddafi began cultivating closer ties with the West European imperialists. By the end of the 1990s, relations were restored with Great Britain. Italy was allowed greater sway over Libya's oil and natural gas sectors.

Revolution: It does seem that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was another turning point.

Lotta: I think that's right. It put more pressure on Qaddafi—would Libya be next? Qaddafi was also worried about a fundamentalist Islamic challenge to his rule. So he began making overtures to the U.S. After 9/11, the Qaddafi regime started sharing intelligence about al-Qaida-type forces with the U.S. In 2004, Qaddafi announced that he was giving up various nuclear and other weapons programs. The U.S. took Libya off its list of "terrorist states." Qaddafi became a valued ally in the U.S. war against terrorism. Bush gave the green light to U.S. oil companies to sign new contracts with Libya. Qaddafi began privatizing some sectors of industry.

I have to say... Qaddafi can't restrain himself in scraping before the imperialists. Last year he signed an agreement with Italy to seal off the crossing routes for undocumented African immigrants coming through Libya to Europe. This was ugly. He demanded billions in payment for patrolling borders... and he issued racist warnings that Europe would turn "black" unless it adopted stricter measures to turn back African immigrants.

This was the "rehabilitated" Qaddafi whose son met with Hillary Clinton... this was the Qaddafi that the London School of Economics was accepting huge donations from... the Qaddafi that the British were now selling arms to. The imperialists found Qaddafi useful and "workable."

You know in early February 2011, the International Monetary Fund released a report on Libya's economy and commended the Qaddafi government, and I'm quoting, for its "ambitious reform agenda" and "strong macroeconomic performance"... and "encouraged" authorities to keep on this promising path. What higher praise, than from the IMF!

But now, when it suits them, and it's really brazen... when they might be able to utilize mass discontent to install an even "more workable" regime, the imperialists are back to the master narrative of "Qaddafi the madman," "Qaddafi the strongman."

Revolution: So let's shift the discussion to some of what is happening in Libya right now and some of the bigger issues and challenges being thrown up.

Lotta: Well, I've focused a lot on the class nature of Qaddafi and the social-economic character of the development model that the Qaddafi regime was pursuing. This is important in understanding how things have unfolded and how growing numbers of people turned against Qaddafi and this model.

Over the last decade, oil wealth and nationalized properties were becoming the province of a narrower and narrower circle, including the extended Qaddafi family... and more of this wealth was being invested abroad.

The regime brooked no criticism. The widespread censorship became increasingly unbearable at a time when people were seeking outlets for expression. Dissidents were being arrested. There was a thirst for political life outside the official structures. The so-called "people's councils" were largely discredited, having become arms of a patronage system and tools of a surveillance network. There was a thirst for cultural diversity—until recently, foreign languages could not be taught in the schools. Health care has deteriorated recently. Unemployment has risen.

Qaddafi's response has been heavier repression... while looking to invigorate the economy with infusions of Western capital. One of the paradoxes of recent years is that when the sanctions were lifted, and the sense of siege abated, Qaddafi's anti-imperialist and nationalist appeals did not have the same resonance. His militant "luster" had worn thin... the allegiance he previously commanded was dissipating.

Revolution: And then the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt lit a fuse.

Lotta: Yes. As we're doing this interview, the situation in Libya is both cloudy and bloody. Qaddafi announced his intention to fight to the end to retain power. Right now the central government controls Tripoli and the western regions of the country, while oppositional forces have taken command of the east. Some ministers and military figures have gone over to the opposition and become part of a nucleus of another government in the making.

Some within this "interim national government council" are calling for Western air strikes to aid them. This is a reactionary demand that represents a craven pro-imperialist stance. This is not in the interests of the Libyan people, who have long suffered under imperial domination.

Something to keep in mind is that this is the first upheaval in the region that has disrupted oil production. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves of any African country, and Libya supplies a significant share of Europe's oil needs. So this too is a factor influencing imperialist calculations. The imperialists are using the pretext of "humanitarian concern" as an ideological wedge for possible military intervention.

Revolution: So this underscores the complicated character of what is happening.

Lotta: Yes. One of the things to emphasize here, looking at the situation in Libya and the continuing struggle in Egypt, is that the notion of "leaderless" movements... it's untrue and it's very damaging. A lot of progressive and radical-minded people would like to think they can swear off leadership. But leadership is being exerted in society and the world, including on them.

In Libya, as in Egypt, different class and social forces have been in the field. They are bringing their interests and outlooks into the fray... and various forces are vying for leadership and seeking to push these movements in certain directions.

Look, you have lawyers assembling in eastern Libya who want to restore the old 1952 constitution, which served a decrepit political and social order. And doctors, university professors, students, disaffected youth, and workers who had taken to the streets... well, they are part of a larger swirl in which reactionary tribal leaders, former ministers, and colonels are angling for position and leadership. You have some people who are trying to settle old scores. You have youth raising slogans "no to tribalism and no to factionalism." And in this same swirl, the imperialists are maneuvering.

Different class forces are bringing forward leadership, programs, and agendas that correspond to their interests. And different sections of society are looking for leadership.

What I'm trying to say is that the question is not leadership or no leadership. No, the question is what kind of leadership? Serving what goals? Using what methods to achieve those goals? And where there is no truly revolutionary and communist leadership, history has repeatedly shown that the masses lose... the people who are the most bitterly oppressed and exploited... and who yearn for and most desperately need fundamental change... they get left out and betrayed.

In his recent statement on Egypt, Bob Avakian speaks to these issues very powerfully, and I want to read from it. He says: "When people ... in their millions finally break free of the constraints that have kept them from rising up against their oppressors and tormentors, then whether or not their heroic struggle and sacrifice will really lead to fundamental change, moving toward the abolition of all exploitation and oppression, depends on whether or not there is a leadership, a communist leadership, that has the necessary scientific understanding and method, and on that basis can develop the necessary strategic approach and the influence and organized ties among growing numbers of the people, in order to lead the uprising of the people, through all the twists and turns, to the goal of a real, revolutionary transformation of society, in accordance with the fundamental interests of the people."

But, and this brings me back to issues of class, to make the kind of revolution that can really emancipate all of humanity... this requires bringing forward the basic sections of the people as the backbone and driving force of revolutionary transformation and as conscious emancipators of all humanity. It requires a leadership capable of doing so.

So there are important lessons to be drawn from what is happening. There are big challenges to rise to. And as Avakian has also emphasized, the future remains to be written.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond