Reflections on the Libya CatastropheEdwin Madunagu
ONE enduring and universal lesson of history, but one that is almost always forgotten or ignored by those in power – until it is too late – resides in that strongest of prime movers of social change called revolution.
This lesson has been formulated in various ways, and by various thinkers, but the formulation with which I am most familiar was provided by Karl Marx (1818-1883) when analysing the European revolutions of mid-19th century.
The formulation goes like this: “The superstition that used to ascribe revolutions to the ugly intentions of agitators is a thing of the past. Today everyone knows that whenever a revolutionary upheaval takes place, its source lies in some social need that outdated institutions are not meeting. The need may not be felt strongly enough or widely enough to obtain immediate success, but any attempt at brutal repression will only make it more powerful.”
Karl Marx wrote these lines about the year 1850, that is, more than 160 years ago. If the attribution of revolutionary upheavals to ‘agitators’ was a “thing of the past” 160 years ago then we, living in 2011, can categorically say that that type of “superstition” has now been definitively dismissed by history. We can also confirm from our own direct experiences, and not just from the reading of Marx, that “revolutionary upheavals” are the results of inability of existing social relations to meet the contemporary needs of the people. And history does not create needs if the means of meeting them are not already in existence or can be quickly created.
Shortly before he wrote, Marx cautioned revolutionaries not to aspire to build a social order that would endure “for all time.” Our reading of this admonition today is that a social order established by an authentic revolution, led by authentic revolutionaries, could, on account of change conditions – objective or subjective or both – be changed by an equally authentic revolution and authentic revolutionaries. Marx’s direct proposition in this matter was the categorical imperative, at all times and in all circumstances, to subject all that existed, including oneself and one’s regime, to “merciless criticism.” The educator, he insisted, must himself or herself be educated: society could not be divided into two sections, with one imparting education and the other receiving it – forever. More specifically, the people cannot be indebted to you unconditionally forever because you once led them in a revolution.
Captain Moammar Gaddafi of the Libyan army was heavily influenced by the Egyptian revolution of 1952 and by Abdul Nasser, the leader of that revolution. He was also inspired by Ernesto Che Guevara or whatever he thought he knew of him. Guevara had been killed in the Bolivian jungle in October 1967. On September 1, 1969, almost exactly two years after Guevara’s death, Gaddafi and his young colleagues rose in an armed, but bloodless, rebelling against the Libyan monarchy.
It may be recalled that Guevara fought, under cover, in the Congo in the mid-1960s and had visited some countries in North Africa. Gaddafi, at 27, was of the same age as Guevara when the latter appeared on the Cuban hills at the side of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro, in an armed struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Guevara held government positions – restlessly, as the world knows – for less than five years and died a revolutionary combatant against imperialism. Gaddafi ruled flambouyantly for more than 41 years.
The 1969 Libyan revolution had four central aims. The first and, I would say, the most immediate aim, was to unify, or consolidate the unstable unity of, the Libyan nation – long devastated and literally enslaved by Ottoman, British, French, and Italian invaders. The second aim was to help unify the Greater Arab nation, an aim inspired and shared by the Egyptian revolution under Nasser. The third aim was to broaden and strengthen the struggle of the Arab nation against Israel which had, before September 1, 1969, defeated the Arab nation in several battles and two major wars, the latest and most devastating and humiliating being the Six-Day War of 1967. The fourth aim was to radically improve the living standard and human dignity of the Libyan masses.
To achieve these aims, the young Libyan revolutionaries reasoned, the monarchy must be overthrown and abolished, the “masses must be put in power, and imperialism must be confronted. The “Gaddafi Revolution” was very popular in Libya. It inspired a generation of youths across Africa. That was at the beginning. Today, 41 years later, the “Gaddafi Revolution” is practically dead.
Professor Goke Olubummo, now late, used to tell us at Ibadan in those days that if a continuous function is observed to be positive at a certain point in time, and then observed to be negative at a later point, then there must be at least one point between the two observed points where the function is zero, where it crosses the line separating the positive sphere from the negative sphere. That point of “transition,” that critical point, can always be determined to any degree of approximation desired. I remember this theorem because it is true not only for mathematical functions but also for historical processes. It is, in particular, true for Libya – and, of course, Egypt.
The critical question for me, and which I am throwing to commentators and analysts is this: When and how did the “Gaddafi Revolution” cross the critical line between “positive” and “negative,” between “popular” and “unpopular,” and what factors were responsible for this tragic transition? The premise of this question, which can be inferred from the preceding discussion, is that the “Gaddafi Revolution” of 1969, and Gaddafi himself, have not always been unpopular, have not always been dictatorial and have not always been “murderous.” If you do not accept this premise, if you believe or hold that Gaddafi had always been what you see and declare him to be in 2011, or if you believe that the 1969 Libyan Revolution has always been “evil,” then not only will my question vanish, the entire discussion leading up to it will also collapse. And I have to address you differently.
While waiting for responses, I look briefly at two other lessons from the current North African mass revolts. The exact roles which the revolutionary Left has played, and is playing, will become better known with time; but I won’t be shocked – as tragic as it will be – if I learn that Left organisations did not foresee the uprisings and worse still, that it took them time to recognise what was happening, reconcile themselves with it, and insert into it. History tells us that when Cuba’s revolutionary youths, led by Fidel Castro, tried, unsuccessfully, to seize an army barracks on July 26, 1953, large fractions of the orthodox Left debated the matter and concluded that it did not conform with “revolutionary rules.” A couple of years later, these “chief priests” of the revolution sat in Havana and debated Castro’s guerilla war for the three years it lasted (1956-1958). They were still debating when columns of the rebel army entered Havana on January 1, 1959.
One other lesson is the tremendous impact of the new information and communication technologies. Again, I recall that during the nationwide “Ali must go” student protest in Nigeria in April 1978, some activists had to rush, partly by road and partly by water, and travelling day and night, from Calabar to Ife, to attend a crucial meeting, and then rush back to Calabar. When they got to Oron on the return trip, they discovered that the ferry to cross them to Calabar had closed for the day. They had to stay in their vehicle, wondering nervously throughout the night how the protest was being prosecuted in Calabar. Their vehicle was the first to enter the ferry the next morning. Nowadays, with mobile phones, the internet and satellite televisions such a trip would hardly be necessary. In any case, they would have known what to expect in Calabar.