The Libyan intervention and the Bay of Pigs: A Parallel

There is still much ado among socialists and left-wingers of various stripes as to the question of support for the Libyan rebels, and more particularly, what to make of the US/British/French/NATO intervention in that country. Now that the Americans, deeply fearing being enmeshed in a third hopeless and unwinnable enterprise, have quickly withdrawn, the onus is on the British and French to finish the job and drive out Ghadaffi without making it too obvious their aim is to drive out Ghadaffi: surely a task worthy of a second Suez. Since the respective leaders of the UK and France are about as intelligent and capable as their counterparts during the Suez ‘crisis’ were, this should come as no surprise. In practice, perhaps following instinct, virtually no left-wing parties and organizations whatever have actually come out in support of the foreign intervention against Ghadaffi. This seems to be entirely independent of the reported fact that some elements in the Revolutionary Council in Libya, an outfit of great political variety and opacity, had actively requested such intervention. However, among the general population there is less clarity. Although it seems that generally the majority opposes further war in Libya, probably due to war exhaustion, there is a general feeling in most responses as well as in the wider media of sympathy with any Western-led enterprise to at the very least punish the evil man Ghadaffi for his attacks on the rebels. The only prominent counterpart to this has been the consistent campaigning by MRZine and Counterpunch against the rebels themselves; they seem to have either bought “Colonel” Ghadaffi’s appeals to his Arab Jamahiriyan brand of sham socialism, or they have simply translated their habitual anti-imperialism into a position of ‘say the opposite of what your enemy says’. Neither seem to be very wise from any point of view.

That said, it does behoove us to address more fully the important question of a case like this, where there is rebellion against a disliked government, with a seeming progressive element in it, although it is unclear to what extent. At the same time, there is a potential imperialist element to the rebellion itself, because of the support from outside. This is a question of both political theory, in terms of what we take imperialism and anti-imperialism to be, as well as strategy, in that we need to decide to what extent we consider outside help by opposing forces to be acceptable to achieve generally desirable aims. To understand this, I believe it is useful to go back to an older discussion, now long forgotten: a discussion between Max Schachtman, a leader of an American socialist group originally committed to opposing both the US and the USSR in the Cold War but generally veering towards supporting the former, and Hal Draper, who had split off from the former’s group over exactly this issue, and insisted on considering each equally undesirable from the long-term point of view of socialism. The time here is the 1960s, and while one can debate the correctness of the assessment against the USSR and its allies, it may be clear that neither country involved really represented socialism as we think of it, or made any real moves towards getting there. It is in this context that the debate must be understood. The debate was about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which at the time appeared as an uprising within Cuba itself of anti-Castro forces; it was clear to all that those forces had the support of the US, but this being the second day of the invasion, it was not yet generally known that the whole thing was set up by the US to begin with, at least not to Schachtman. For our purposes this is not the interesting part, nor is the question of whether Castro following the Soviet line was really as bad a development as it is made out to be here, since there is no equivalent situation to that in Libya today. What is interesting to us is assuming that we think of Castro as a dictator, generally undesirable but flashing ‘progressive’ credentials (like Ghadaffi), and of the rebels as they were seen initially: a motley bunch with a left and a right, the politics being entirely undetermined as yet, claiming to fight the tyrant for a free politics in Cuba of whatever kind (similar to the rebels in Libya today).

Since the debate itself consisted of a speech by Schachtman given in Berkeley on the second day of the invasion, and the response is the pamphlet Draper wrote as a reaction, characteristically fairly and charitably including both views in their entirety, it is too long to reproduce in its entirety here. A scanned version of the pamphlet is nonetheless available at the Internet Archive, so that readers can follow the argument. It begins with Schachtman providing his defense for supporting the Bay of Pigs rebellion (as it was seen), using very typical arguments quite prevalent now. He says he is opposed to Castro, being a dictator who certainly had his progressive elements, but who is not sufficient from a political point of view. While he opposes American invasion or war of that kind, and also of course any takeover by explicit reactionaries like followers of Batista, he does support a rebellion against Castro if it looks possible that this would have the support of the true left in Cuba. By this he means the independent trade union people, repressed in Cuba, as well as working class socialists, and so forth, of whom there are many among the rebels, so he is assured. We do not know of course whether that is empirically the case, but for the sake of the discussion, Draper and the audience accept it is so. Schachtman acknowledges, of course, that they have been trained and armed by and in the United States. But this is no objection, says he: after all, one should get arms where one can. Castro himself after all trained and armed himself outside Cuba as Batista would hardly let him do it within the country! It is the classic case of Lenin on the German “sealed train”, etc. This of itself does not mean one should oppose the rebels. Then he goes on to the crucial next point: the rebels themselves. He admits, he does not know where a victory by the rebels would go. He knows they have a left wing, but they clearly also have reactionaries and dubious figures of all sorts. He, of course, supports only the left among the rebels, and would want them to win. This can’t be guaranteed; but then what can be guaranteed is that a victory by Castro would mean the end of an independent socialist movement in Cuba, as Castro would then have a free hand to not only settle scores, but also submit himself and Cuba to the power of the USSR (again, the question here is not whether this was actually bad or not for our purposes – in the Libyan equivalent case it simply means the untrammelled power of Ghadaffi’s clique). Therefore, one should support the rebellion, as well as the foreign support for it, as the only movement which has any potential at least to move towards a desirable situation. Of course, one should not support an actual ground invasion by the US or the like.

To this familiar position, Hal Draper gives his usual devastatingly acute and effective response. Taking the assessment by Schachtman as given (though Draper sensibly questions whether he could not really have known the thing was a CIA scheme from the start), he takes apart the reasoning anyway. The question is really, as Draper points out, whether one should support the rebellion/invasion as such, entirely regardless of the real misdeeds of the opponents. Whether Castro has committed real misdeeds is irrelevant to the judgement on the new development insofar as that development must first be analyzed with regard to what it is. After all, both the USSR and the US have real misdeeds to point at with each other, and did so regularly; same is true for the warring powers in World War 1. That is no guide of itself. Draper acknowledges that taking arms and receiving help from abroad, even from imperialist powers, is not of itself a reason to dismiss the rebellion/invasion. Did they not advise the Resistance movements in Europe during WWII to take arms from the Americans and Brits, despite opposing these governments as such? Yet this was only a subsidiary question to a larger question, and there’s the rub. The real issue is not ipso facto support from the imperialists, but is whether the movement as such is an independent movement, with or without outside support for purely strategic reasons, or that it is a dependent movement of the imperialists, without whom it would and could not have existence. It is this analysis which should determine our attitude to the outside support in the context of anti-imperialism. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, the latter was clearly the case. It is equally clear that in the case of an independent movement, the imperialists will want to control such a movement. This of itself does not mean that they succeed, even when they are giving arms or other support; but it must be closely followed whether there is resistance against this, or whether the imperialists actually achieve this, and such efforts must be prevented. Then Draper comes to the question of the ‘left wing’ of the rebels. He wisely points out that of course the rebels would have a left wing; it is very rare indeed for there not to be any kind of ‘left’ wing, at least a liberal one, in a movement of this kind. The imperialists, if they are at all intelligent (and they aren’t always), should want this anyway, as it allows them to cloak their intent in faux-progressive garb. Also, among rebels one usually finds genuine leftist minded people, since the battle for freedom (real or perceived) for obvious reasons tends to attract them. Finally, especially in the case of trade unions, it is easy for corruption and short-term interests of a section of workers to lead them to a ‘left’ support for a cause otherwise associated with reaction. The decisive criterion is here again not the mere presence of such groups, but whether they are predominant, or merely a fig-leaf. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, the latter was clearly the case. To sum up then, Draper adds that in each case one would wish support for the rebels in cases where the latter criterion worked out in their favor, but even then such suppprt should not come from one’s imperialist governments, if this means becomes dominated by them. Here he points to opposing American arming of either the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War (which would have led to WWII) and of the Hungarian rebels in 1956 (which would make them dependent on the CIA).

Now let us apply these lessons to the case of Libya. The misdeeds of Ghadaffi are clear enough, and require no further discussion (entirely regardless, mind you, of whether he calls himself socialist or not). What then of the rebels? First: are they wholly reactionary, or do they have a balance, or are they predominantly progressive vis-á-vis Ghadaffi? We should probably assume a balance in these case, assume a left and a right wing. Those terms may well be generally irrelevant in the particular case of Libya, but since we do not know at all well what the rebels are made of politically, and who the dominant forces among them are, we are wise to treat it as a case in flux. It may go anywhere. This of itself then does not settle the question one way or the other; the foreign support in the form of airstrikes and ‘military advisors’ may or may not be acceptable. On to the next criterion: are they organisationally independent of the imperialists? This is in our particular case the decisive question. At the moment of their uprising and through most of their gains and losses, they clearly have been. In fact, when confronted with unasked British special forces support, they arrested the platoon. Everyone acknowledges, even Ghadaffi, that their victories were their own and their losses also (except Hugo Chávez, who blamed “US meddling”). But from the point of the airstrikes onward, this has become much less clear. As Draper points out, we should expect the imperialists to want to take over, given they had not earlier. And these air strikes, in suddenly permitting an embattled group of rebels to defeat the siege of Benghazi and retake a number of towns, seem to make such an impact as to make the rebels rather dependent on them. Of itself, to accuse a foreign intervention of being unjustified because too effective is an odd argument. But that is precisely at issue when the political and operational control, as Draper calls it, of the rebellion is shifted by the outside support from the rebels to the imperialists. And this seems to be the case. The fact the rebels even with such support do not seem to be making tremendous headway since the Ghadaffi withdrawal from Benghazi seems to indicate their organic weakness, although it is difficult to tell. The attitude to our own governments’ imperialism, finally, also behooves us to be very wary of direct use of its military power on its own account, so to speak. We know all too well how real causes for socialism and democracy have been co-opted or derailed by opportunistic outside powers using them essentially as hostages for their own cause.

These things considered, our verdict then must be to oppose the intervention, whether in the form of airstrikes or military advisors, even given the intervention does not at any point extend to outright invasion or ground troops. Only outside support that is not under the political or operational control of the imperialist governments would be acceptable, assuming current knowledge. If it were revealed forces beneficial to socialism were dominant among the Libyan rebels, such support would become obligatory; if it were on the contrary revealed that forces detrimental to socialism (relative to Ghadaffi himself), or equally bad, were dominant among the Libyan rebels, such support would also to be condemned.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *