"I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life." Ho Chi Minh 1946.
A recent Al Jazeera survey showing strong Malian support for French military intervention was no doubt skewed towards those of the two-thirds of Malians who have a mobile phone and who are likely to be more concentrated in the south. With secular and some Islamic Tuareg resistance fighters in the north collaborating with the French occupation, it would seem Malians have opted for the time being to “sniff French shit” in the face of the alternative most felt they faced: a destructive quasi-criminal/religious warlordism.
The Malian people are not to blame for the breakdown of their own government and military (and the long-term consequences of colonialism), leaving them potentially defenceless, but eventually they will have to confront French neo-colonialism, its surrogates in the coming military presence from Chad, Niger etc., and the new Western “scramble for Africa” of which it is part. They will also have to confront the marginalisation, and demands for regional autonomy of the Tuareg and other minorities in the north, as well as ongoing divisions within the Malian army and society. There is also no doubt much more yet to come out in terms of the civilian casualties of French bombing and there is clear evidence human rights abuses (before and after the French intervention) by the Malian army directed against the northern minorities.
This situation in Mali is reflective of the “Sophie’s choice” that often confronts people where war and violence are concerned. The general context of violence and the threat of violence compels people to make choices among bad alternatives based on fear, confusion, lack of information, absence of hindsight and the immediate imperatives of the violent “moment”.
We can see this at a level that affects our own daily lives. Violence can impel us to act against our better political sentiments; like calling the cops (as I have done), on neighbours engaged in yet another a violent dispute, wrecking the house around their ears, while their primary school children screamed at them to stop. While I have personally intervened in such situations in the past this was unlikely to have been useful on this occasion. I wish there had been some other more appropriate social agency to call but there wasn’t. I felt the choice I made was the only one possible. We are often confronted by such situations throughout our lives.
In the larger context of war and violence, and the specific context of the Arab revolution, a similar problem was presented in the Libyan “Benghazi Moment” when, notwithstanding the early manipulations of the British, French, Qatari’s and ex-Gaddafi loyalists, the Libyan people as a whole were confronted with a choice between wrong and wrong: whether to take the risk and face the blood-curdling threats of Gaddafi (I see no evidence that he was likely to be any less brutal than the Assadists in Syria) or invite in the neo-colonial war machine of the British and French. The choice made would I think would have been welcomed at the time by most Libyans. To say this is not to endorse foreign intervention. Rather it is a question of empathising with the dilemma the Libyans faced, being willing to respect their decision and be supportive of them as they struggle to deal with the consequences, while at the same time maintaining a strong critique of imperialism and shining a harsh light on the realities of intervention.
We can cut a little slack for the Libyans, and the Syrians, just as we might cut some slack for the Vietnamese revolutionaries who aligned themselves with the US during WWII, later showed an initial willingness to cut a post-war deal with the French, and then ultimately sought assistance from the Stalinist states. Or the situation faced by the Bolsheviks who not only sought German Imperialist assistance to enable Lenin to return to Russia but who were later forced to bargain with them at Brest-Litovsk in 1918; choosing between wrong and wrong, and accepting German terms for an armistice in order to save Petrograd and the Russian revolution itself. Brest-Litovsk was in many respects the Bolsheviks’ “Benghazi Moment”.
World War Two also presented challenges for the anti-imperialist Left – a war with its origins in imperialist conflict but one that threw up a particularly virulent strain of military nationalism that had to be responded to. The concept of that war as an intersection of two wars: an imperialist war and a people’s war against fascism contains the inference that the interests of the imperialists (the Allies) and Leftists/Liberationists might at moments coincide – as they did in Vietnam, or in Europe where resistance groups collaborated with Western intelligence.
Recognising this does not mean becoming part of a “pro-war Left” or privileging imperialism over local dictatorships – rather it is a recognition of the imperatives driven by war and violence and the fact that in such circumstances the interests of imperialists and liberationists will sometimes, temporarily, coincide.
Take up the gun, take up the gun-runner.
In the Arab revolution, foreign intervention in Libya, and later Syria, began with the taking up of the gun against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes. Foreign intervention follows armed struggle as night follows day. Foreign supply or application of weaponry becomes inevitable on some level – the only questions remaining being to what extent the revolutionaries are able to hold together a cohesive, credible and genuinely inclusive organisation or movement and keep the level of foreign intervention under some sort of control. Once armed struggle had commenced, a Libyan rejection of British and French bombing, would still have led down a path that would have involved some degree of reliance on foreign assistance, perhaps, as in Syria, via the Gulf states, particularly Qatar.
There are obvious risks involved in accepting this foreign intervention in the context of armed struggle. After all the Vietnamese people relied on the “fraternal” Stalinist states for assistance in their revolution at the same time as these states were suppressing their own population and collaborating in the undemocratic intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The long-run effect of this may have been a further contribution to the Stalinist militarisation of the Vietnamese revolution. And in Syria, the limited support from the Gulf States and others, in the context of Western paralysis about supplying arms to potentially anti-Western groups, has no doubt skewed the Syrian opposition in a more Islamic and specifically Sunni direction. In Libya in contrast, the reliance on French and British bombing has left a legacy of Western interference at the level of the new Libyan transitional government.
It is for these and other reasons I remain an advocate of unarmed civil resistance as the best way forward for political change – it is not cost free but would 60,000 have died in Syria if the opposition had stuck to this path? What would the situation have been in Libya had the opposition not taken up the gun against Gaddafi in the first place? Civil resistance doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be attempts at foreign intervention by imperial powers, but the mass participation necessary for its success militates against interference. Armed struggle on the other hand creates inward looking, security conscious armed elites, clustering around the internalised violence of the oppressor and ready made, when the time comes, to enforce a political sell-out. An example here is the Fatah-led PLO, which choked off the First Intifada at the end of the 1980’s and took the Palestinians down the disastrous path of the Oslo Accords.
Armed struggle ultimately debauches the political movement/s it springs from. In the Palestinian struggle for example, the “success” of the Gaza based rocket attacks in resistance to the recent brutal assault by Israel is not a cause for too much celebration. The rocketeers of Gaza have no more long-term answers for Palestinians than the racketeers of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Arguably a more effective way forward for Palestinians is to return to civil resistance and global boycott, building to a restarting of the First Intifada, engaging Palestinians inside Israel and in the refugee camps as well as Gaza and the West Bank.
It is imperative for those of us on the Left to continue to shine a harsh light on the machinations of the imperialist predators but not to the point of political paralysis in terms of supporting peoples, like the Libyans or Syrians, struggling against tyranny.
Notwithstanding human rights abuses on both sides of the equation in Syria, and the rise of some dodgy Islamist elements within the Syrian resistance, the situation emerged from the brutality of the Assad regime and its resistance to reform. At the very least the Assad regime should have been subjected to more pressure from the Western Left. For example, there have been virtually no public demonstrations of support for Syrians in Australia – the Syrian honorary consulate in Sydney, in the middle of Left-Green Balmain, has been undisturbed as has the Vietnamese consulate in Melbourne which hosts Syrian consular affairs there. Contrast this with the (quite correct) political actions against the Max Brenner shops in both cities, and the very rapid and effective protests against the Israeli assault on Gaza. Let’s face it, with notable exceptions (such as Socialist Alternative), Syria has not been the anti-imperialist Left’s finest hour.
While a supporter of unarmed civil resistance (and one who lies on the more non-violent end of the spectrum of what “unarmed” means) I feel we should nonetheless be empathetic towards, and supportive of, those who, in dire, historically determined, circumstances feel that they have had no choice but to go down the path of armed resistance and respect the problems of managing the influence of the imperial gun-runners that inevitably ensues. We should continue to shine the light on the real motives of the imperialists and interventionists while being supportive of the locals as they are forced to ultimately confront the consequences of this interference. We should support attempts to take violence out of the equation such as through political negotiations (while being critical of those negotiations, as in Yemen, that seek to cement in the status quo). Negotiations should be seen as a transition, not a “solution”: a transition that can restore non-violent and civil resistance/mass action methods to the centre of the move for political change. Such negotiations may now become possible with the stalemate in Syria, and in the context of restoring the Malian people’s control over their political situation, just as such negotiations may have been possible in Libya had the gun not been taken up, or at least in preference to the latter “regime change” stage of the British/French intervention.
Above all we should strive to find a way back to that peaceful mass political activity which can help shape a better world in ways that war and violence never can.