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International Socialism, Summer 1984


Jon Bearman

Libya – the development of
the Qadhafi [Gaddafi] regime


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 24, Summer 1984, pp. 101–124.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Few contemporary political leaders have inspired as much vilification as Muammer Qadhafi [Gaddafi]. In the fourteen years since he led the overthrow of the British backed Sanussi monarchy he has been one of the chief bogeymen of the American and European ruling classes: in one of his more apoplectic moments Ronald Reagan has called him ‘world enemy number one’ and described Libya as ‘a base for international subversion’. His administration has singled out Qadhafi’s Libya as a symbolic menace to American power in exactly the same way as Kennedy focussed on Castro’s Cuba and Nixon on Allende’s Chile. Three times in three years Reagan has put American forces on alert against Libya, accused Qadhafi of sending hit-squads to assassinate him, imposed a trade embargo to undermine the Libyan economy and financed right-wing opposition groups. The continuing ability of Libya to defy Reagan has only fuelled the White House’s obsession with bringing about his downfall.

Set alongside this overt western hostility, and standing in contrast with it, is the hero-worship and popular adulation Qadhafi undeniably receives in Libya. A Qadhafi speech in Martyrs Square, Tripoli, will be enthusiastically attended by thousands. His avowed determination to challenge American and European imperialism in Africa and the Arab world, culminating in the clash with the Sixth Fleet in the Gulf of Sirte in August 1982, has given Qadhafi the aura of a national resistance leader. In addition, he has won praise for the steady rise of living standards that has occurred since the monarchy was deposed. Unlike the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikhdoms, the regime headed by Qadhafi is not perceived to have squandered revenues on private capitalist gain, but to have spent funds on the creation of a free health service, housing and other development projects.

What relevance, one might ask, does this have for revolutionary socialists? After all, haven’t the imperialist powers always had their Third World anti-heroes: Mossadegh, Gandhi and Nasser were all in their time the subject of vitriolic propaganda campaigns abroad and popular support at home and nothing they said or did was very radical in the end. Qadhafi may indeed fall into that category, but there are a number of reasons why he shouldn’t be so simply dismissed just yet. The most important of these is the profound nature of the claims Qadhafi has made for the Libyan revolution: he has declared that the Libyan people have overthrown capitalism, abolished the state and established workers’ – or to use his terminology, ‘producers’ – control.

Qadhafi would also have us believe that he has taken up cudgels on behalf of the Arab working class. In a speech to the Arab Conference on Workers’ Culture in Tripoli on 23 December 1983 he called on workers in all Arab countries to overthrow the capitalist system, saying: ‘All forms of material wealth in any society are attributable to workers effort. None the less they are the most oppressed section of society because they give away their effort to employers.’ It was the task of revolutionaries, added Qadhafi, to make workers aware that ‘what is called profit’ is in reality ‘the stolen effort of the workers’. [1]

Qadhafi also has something to say about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the same speech, he observed: ‘Despite the transformation from one situation to another, searching for a better solution to political, economic and social problems, the workers haven’t achieved a real change.’ He continued: ‘The development which affected ownership did not solve the issue of the workers’ right to the production he yields directly and this is evident in the status of the producers who are still wage earners despite the alteration of ownership.’ Indeed, in Qadhafi’s opinion, the Russian revolution failed because the bureaucracy ‘usurped’ power from the Russian workers. As a result, he stresses, it is the role of the Libyan revolution to direct humanity back on to the road of ‘human emancipation’ – called the Era of the Masses.

However fantastic we find Qadhafi’s claims, they are believed with conviction by thousands of Libyans and growing numbers of Africans. There is now the beginnings of an international movement of adherents to the philosophy expounded by Qadhafi, with branches in Brazil, Canada, Australia, Western Europe and various Arab countries. Time has come for many of the points posed by Libya to be answered. So far, to my knowledge, there has been no serious Marxist analysis of modern Libya. Bourgeois studies have concentrated on oil and economic development or caricatures of the enigmatic man himself. However, for our purposes, a serious assessment is needed of Qadhafi’s claim that Libya is the vanguard of a new international revolutionary and socialist order. Is it just radical rhetoric or does the working class really hold power in Libya today?

The 1st September revolution [2]

Libya was granted independence by the United Nations in December 1951, after nine years of British administration and just over thirty years as an Italian colony. King Idris the ruler of the new state was not much more than a stooge for the British, who duly undertook to pay for his maintenance through the Libyan Public Development and Stabilisation Agency. The country’s main advantage for the British was its long Mediterranean coastline and its proximity to Egypt, which, from the early 1950s, under Gamal Abdul Nasser was the focal point of Arab nationalism. Both Britain and the United States retained bases in Libya as part of their strategy to contain the influence of Nasser. Idris himself, the head of the Sanussi religious sect, had little support outside his tribal base in Cyrenaica, but was the only figure of any stature the British could rely on to stand against the tide of Arab nationalism. He was also extremely reluctant to become entangled in the confrontation with Zionism.

His regime was nominally in control of a vast and sparsely populated territory. At independence, approximately 1.5 million people inhabited a country of 679,358 square miles, 99 percent of which was desert. At that point there were no oil revenues; the only industries were the picking of esparto grass, used for paper making, and the collection of scrap metal from the battlefields of the Second World War. There was no industrial working class, hardly any education or health service, and an acute shortage of housing. According to one American post-independence report on Libya: ‘The standard of housing is extremely low; a large part of the population lives in primitive huts, tents or caves, lacking furniture and the simplest of conveniences. Clothing is made out of home grown wool. The poor are clad in rags and walk barefoot, even during the fairly cold winters.’ [3]. The country had an annual per capita income estimated at $35 dollars. Agriculture, which had expanded during the colonial period, went into decline.

The development of the oilfields was the transformation of Libya. As the oil began to flow from 1961 onwards, a Libyan working class was created, both in the drilling and construction industries and in the ancillary industries of transport, shipping and docks. The actual numbers of Libyans working at any one time in the oil exploration camps and subsidiary services was never particularly large, but as F.C. Thomas pointed out in the Middle East Journal in 1962:

‘The impact of oil employment in Libya cannot be measured simply in terms of the numbers involved. Because of the nature of the operations and the high rate of labour turnover, probably twice the number currently employed [1961] have at some time worked in petroleum exploration. The experience has had an unsettling effect on the individuals involved as well as on the local communities from which they come.’

One of the consequences was a huge migration to the cities. Between 1954 and 1964 the population of Tripoli grew by 64 percent, from 130,000 to 213,000, while Benghazi’s doubled from 70,000 to 137,000. [4]. The whole tribal and feudal basis of the Sanussis was undermined.

The actual event which precipitated the downfall of the monarchy was the 1967 Six Day War. On the evening of June 5th, the day Israel invaded Egypt, workers and students attacked the property of British and American companies in Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for British and American government connivance with the Zionists. Two days later, as fighting flared in Sinai, oil industry workers in Libya started to black the loading of oil tankers in defiance of an order from the Idris regime, which was reduced to helplessly appealing to the workers to open the terminals to ‘friendly nations’. Meanwhile, as demonstrations against the British and Americans continued to erupt in the cities, it soon became clear that the regime was visibly losing its grip on the situation. On the 14th June, the oil companies, which had withdrawn tankers outside the territorial water limit, issued a confidential report saying that Libya was ‘on the verge of revolt’. [5]

Before long, however, as the scale of the Arab defeat became apparent, the rebellion began to ebb and the state slowly resumed the initiative. A new government appointed under Abdul Kadr Badri launched a campaign of terror against the working class and imprisoned seven leaders of the oil workers strike movement. At the same time, the regime sought a reconciliation with its bourgeois Arab neighbours, which it had abandoned during the war with Israel because of its strong links with Western imperialism. At the Khartoum Arab summit in August, Libya, by now the third richest Arab oil state, agreed to provide Egypt and Jordan with reconstruction aid worth $84 million per year ‘until the last traces of Israeli aggression are removed’.

The deal with the Arab bourgeoisie, particularly Nasser, who had no interest in workers revolution in Libya, strengthened the hand of Idris and paved the way for a brief period of stability. Not that opposition to the regime was eradicated completely. As the working class challenge faded, the middle class intelligentsia in Libya searched for alternative ways to remove the monarchy. The result was a rapid growth of conspiratorial politics, especially within the armed forces. The model was that of the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, when the Free Officers, led by Nasser, toppled the British stooge, King Farouk. On a similar basis, a Libyan Tree Unionist Officers movement was organised secretly inside the armed forces, consisting primarily of junior army officers and headed by a captain from signals called Muammer Qadhafi. The culmination of these clandestine activities was the 1st September revolution of 1969, a comparatively bloodless coup, carried out whilst Idris was abroad and the ruling oligarchy crippled with dissension.

The revolution was broadly similar to the anti-colonial revolutions which swept other Third World countries in the post-war period, whether in China, Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba or Ethiopia. The common denominator in all these revolutions was that the leading role was taken by the middle-class intelligentsia, whose place in society was enhanced by the general conditions of social and economic backwardness, whilst the working class played a passive or auxiliary part. In the case of Libya, the revolutionary intelligentsia, impatient for change, decided to short cut developments with a military coup carried out not by the Libyan workers and exploited masses themselves, but rather, by the army on their behalf. As Qadhafi himself has admitted: ‘From the very start it was a people’s movement. The movement was for the sake of the poor. It began and spread first among the students. Ours was a student revolution, but we had to go through the army to use it for the revolution. However, soon after the revolution resumed its popular role and was given back to the people.’ [6]

Nasserism reigns supreme: 1969–73

Qadhafi and the eleven other members of the Revolutionary Command Council, set up as the supreme authority immediately after the coup, were not Marxists. Their motives have been essentially Arab nationalist. Above all else, they intended that Libya should end its grovelling subordination to Britain and the United States and participate in the Arab conflict with Israel. The most important single influence on their political development was that of Gamal Abdul Nasser, and it was his Egypt which provided the model of the sort of society they wanted to create in Libya. Qadhafi is credited with saying to Nasser’s adviser, Al Ahram editor Mohammed Heykal, who was sent to Libya to meet the coup- makers:

‘Tell President Nasser we made this revolution for him. He can take everything of ours and add it to the rest of the Arab world’s resources to be used for the battle.’ [7]

Qadhafi himself is undeniably an extraordinary man, but his formative political experiences were in anti-imperialist struggles, not in socialist politics. Born to a nomad family in the Sirte desert in 1942, Qadhafi, the legend goes, first learnt politics from broadcasts by Voice of the Arabs radio in Cairo. As a school student at Sebha between 1956 and 1961 he quickly became known as an instigator of political activity, organising with his close associate, Abdussalam Jalloud, demonstrations over the death of Lumumba, the explosion of a French atomic bomb in the Sahara and the Algerian liberation struggle. Eventually, after he was discovered to have organised a secret Nasserist political study group, the authorities had him expelled from the Fezzan. Returning to the cities of the coast, Qadhafi drifted for a while, toying with the idea of joining George Habash’s Arab Nationalist Movement. Finally, in conformity with his own Nasserist ideals, he enlisted at Benghazi Military Academy in 1963 with the deliberate objective of replaying the Egyptian Revolution in Libya.

It is not surprising therefore that the new regime inherited many of the same features of Nasserism. The fact that the intervention came from above instead of from below meant that, whilst the overthrow of the Sanussis was a highly popular event, the Libyan working class played an entirely passive role. All power rested with the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which, for two years, ruled as a military junta, issuing decrees from Azzizia barracks in Tripoli. The officers were clearly following the Nasserite concept of ‘hegemony of the military’. As Qadhafi himself has admitted in an interview with Le Figaro: ‘Frankly speaking the officers have the conscience to recognize the people’s claims better than others’. [8] A Council of Ministers was appointed eight days after the coup, but it remained totally eclipsed by the RCC. The only political basis of support for the regime outside the Armed Forces, was a milieu of students and intellectuals centred around Benghazi.

The initial phase of the revolution was one of consolidation. The RCC went very quickly on to the offensive to crush any potential focus of opposition. The vestiges of Sanussi feudalism were swiftly eliminated: stringent controls were placed on the operation of the zawiyas [9] and the Sanussi religious schools, and title deeds of land and property were redistributed. The RCC also moved to break the links which bound Libya to the imperialist countries. The RCC announced on the 29th September 1969 that it would not be renewing the leases for the British bases at Al Adem and Tobruk and the big American air base at Wheelus Field and, expecting resistance, launched a popular campaign to ensure that both countries complied. By the end of March 1970 the British had gone, followed by the Americans in mid-June. Keeping up the momentum, on 24th July, the regime issued a decree expropriating the property of the 30,000 strong Italian settler community, who shortly afterwards evacuated to their home country like the French settlers in Algeria before them.

The expulsion of the foreign bases and the Italian settlers was seen in Libya as part of a process of national liberation. The closure of the bases in particular was put on a parallel with Nasser’s victory over the British and French at Suez in 1956. Indeed it was Arab nationalism which lay at the heart of the politics of the new regime and provided a theme around which the RCC could build support for the revolution. In Qadhafi’s view the Arabs are an oppressed nation and the key to that oppression is the Zionist occupation of Palestine, imposed and maintained by the imperialist states. Their liberation, he insists, depends on the destruction of the colonially set boundaries and the unification of the Arab countries. Unity with Egypt, especially, was a priority with the regime, which in the early years embarked on many unification initiatives, culminating in the famous Green March on Egypt in July 1973. None of these various initiatives ever succeeded, but for Qadhafi they have exposed to the Arab people regimes not fully behind the Arab cause and established Libya as the champion of Palestinian liberation.

The logical extension of this virulent nationalism was support for movements around the globe fighting those imperialist states deemed responsible for the oppression of the Arab people. The RCC, Qadhafi in particular, believed that to be successful the struggle had to be conducted internationally, backing the IRA against Britain, Black Muslim groups in the United States, and anti-imperialist and separatist movements in conflict with Western client states and colonies, such as the MPLA, the ANC, ZANU, the Moros in the Philippines and the Pattanis in Thailand. Explained Qadhafi about support for the IRA: ‘It must be remembered that the revolutionaries of the IRA are striking, and striking hard, at the power which has humiliated the Arabs for centuries.’ [10] According to the RCC, Libya had ‘a sacred duty to support all revolutions’ [11]; such support, however, has always been conditional on Libyan relations with the states concerned. Support for the IRA was dropped in the mid-seventies after relations with the British state improved (though it has now been taken up again) and, similarly, the Polisario Front was abandoned when Libya commenced reconciliation talks with Morocco last year.

Building on the popularity engendered by the nationalist victories, the RCC attempted to institutionalise a base of support. The process began on the 11th July 1971 with the formation of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), a political form borrowed from Egypt and doubtless intended to enhance the prospects for unity with Egypt. The RCC hoped that the ASU would mobilise mass support for the revolution, but the organisation turned out to be completely stillborn. The Libyan working class and peasantry failed to respond to official attempts to manipulate mass action from above, so it never become much more than a bureaucratic shell dominated by the nationalist intelligentsia. At the same time, the RCC strictly held the line against political expression from below, including the trade unions. Speaking at the founding conference of the ASU, Qadhafi declared: ‘The trade unions have nothing to do with politics – at no time and at no place. Trade unions and federations are professional organisations. It is the ASU which engages in politics.’ [12]

Perhaps the most important reason underlying the ASU’s failure to win mass support was the fact that its establishment was not connected with a challenge to private capital in Libya. During the initial period after the revolution, the RCC, whilst moving towards a more centralised concept of planning, did not want to then antagonize the owners of capital in the country. [13] The regime’s main priority was to extend greater state control over the oil industry.

The cultural revolution: 1973–77

The failure of the ASU was a great blow to Qadhafi. Without a base of mass support he had fears that the whole revolution would slowly collapse. Already there were signs of ossification: a rightist tendency, identified with Egyptian President Sadat [14] and opposed to the more radical form of nationalism espoused by Qadhafi, had emerged within the RCC. Qadhafi’s reaction to the crisis was to go on to the offensive. Together with his radical faction on the RCC (Jalloud, Abu Bakr Yunis Jaber, Khweildi Hamidi and Mustafa Kharubi) he launched a student-based ‘cultural revolution’ to strengthen his political position and purge the rightists. In a speech at Zuwara on 15th April 1973, he encouraged an assault on established authority in Libya, saying: ‘The revolutionary accomplishments you want to achieve are threatened, in my opinion, if you continue your present course.’ Calling for a ‘cleansing’ of the administration and the distribution of ‘arms to the people’ (i.e. students), he urged the formation of peoples’ committees in villages, towns, workplaces, schools and colleges ‘to run the government and assume the responsibilities of power’.

The cultural revolution made a number of important advances on the ASU. Within four months of the Zuwara speech, just over 2000 peoples’ committees had been established, many senior managers in state or private enterprises dismissed, demoted or transferred, the bureaucracy purged of rightist officials and the ulemaa, the institution of Muslim clergy, attacked as a ‘reactionary influence’. For all that, the gains of the cultural revolution were limited. The campaign did not create a base of support for the revolution. The working class had played no significant part in the affair. From beginning to end Qadhafi and his RCC allies had exercised tight control, through their command of the armed forces, and it soon petered out around August, after the abortive Green March on Egypt by which Qadhafi had sought to pressure Sadat into more radical policies.

The ideology of the cultural revolution came from the Third Universal Theory, which Qadhafi first expounded at the Tripoli Conference of European and Arab Youth in May 1973 and later expounded in his Green Book. As nationalist Third World ideologies go, it is an unusual hybrid. The basis of the theory is that there exists a third way between capitalism and communism (as represented by the Soviet Union). The central tenet is the rejection of all forms of representative democracy. ‘All representation is fraud,’ says the Green Book. It adds:

‘The masses... are completely isolated from the representative and he, in turn, is totally separated from them. For immediately after winning their votes he “usurps” their sovereignty and acts instead of them.’

He also repudiates class politics for populist politics. ‘The class political system,’ he declares, ‘is the same as the party, the tribal or the sectarian systems, i.e. a class dominates society in the same way a party, tribe or sect does.’ In arriving at this conclusion, the key influence on Qadhafi has been the failure of the Soviet Union, which he regards as a bureaucratic and repressive society. For example, he comments: ‘The party that is formed in the name of a class automatically becomes a substitute for that class and continues until it becomes a replacement for the class.’ [15] This is what he believes has occurred in the Soviet Union under Stalin and his response is a rigorous opposition to the manifestation of independent working class politics, to the extent that what few Marxists there were in the country in the mid-seventies were subject to harassment and imprisonment. [16]

What is the ‘Third Way’ Qadhafi proposes? It is, in essence, a theory of ‘direct democracy.’ He recommends the abolition of all representation and the creation of a system of Basic Peoples Congresses. These are committees established in neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools and colleges, through which the whole population (in theory at any rate) collectively govern. Directly accountable to the Basic Peoples Congresses are ‘peoples committees’, composed of technocrats and other specialists, responsible for administration. National policy is decided together by the secretaries and assistant-secretaries of the Basic Peoples Congresses, who meet annually in a General Peoples Congress (GPC). Selected at the GPC are the ministers (secretaries) of the various ministries (secretariats), who remain technically responsible to the GPC, but who attend meetings of the General Popular Committee, the equivalent of a cabinet.

The fault with this form of direct democracy, which is not linked with working class self-emancipation and control of the productive forces, is that it acts to diffuse and moderate class antagonisms, creating the impression that power is firmly rooted below, among ‘the people’, and that all members are equal participants. In reality in every single instance of direct democracy, power has been exercised from above because it is those above who have set the terms of its practice. In the case of Libya, Qadhafi planned to keep control over the political direction of the country by assigning responsibility for the revolution to a movement of revolutionary committees which he intended to start with himself as the leader. These committees would ‘guide’ the people through agitation and education. They would instigate popular mobilisations, launch production and harvesting campaigns, root out opponents and defeat moves within the Basic People Congresses opposed by the leadership of the movement. Qadhafi himself has explained the significance of this separation of roles:

‘I am only leading the revolution, so the things that are attached to me are very positive. If I were in power people would probably accuse me of negative things. But at the moment I am leading the opposition.’ [17]

In April 1975, following publication of the first part of the Green Book, Qadhafi announced that the ASU would be gradually replaced with the ‘exciting experiment of popular power’. His decision to push ahead so soon after the collapse of the cultural revolution was doubtless influenced by the growing political crisis in Libya. Opposition to Qadhafi’s ideology had initiated a power struggle, both inside the RCC and the intelligentsia. One rightist member of the RCC, Planning Minister Omar A1 Mihaishi, had fled to Egypt after attempting to oust Qadhafi. There was also trouble at the universities. In January 1976 there was a student uprising in Benghazi, in which at least ten died in clashes with the police, and in April there was unrest at Tripoli’s A1 Fateh University. At the same time, to add to the problems, an economic crisis was looming, with the dismal result from the 3 year development plan. Qadhafi’s response was to crush all the dissent, which only persuaded him that ‘direct democracy’ was more urgent than ever. Consequently, he embarked on a campaign to set up Basic People’s Congresses and, in Tripoli in January 1976, the ASU’s Third Congress was reconstituted as the first GPC.

‘Direct democracy’ 1977–78

The Declaration on the Establishment of the Peoples’ Authority, at a specially convened session of the GPC on 2nd March 1977, was the high-water mark of the campaign for direct democracy. With this declaration, the 970 member Congress, with Fidel Castro as the guest of honour, proclaimed ‘the end of any form of conventional institution of government’ and spelled out the transfer of power to the system of Basic Peoples’ Congresses. Simultaneously, Libya’s name was changed from the Libyan Arab Republic to the Socialist Peoples’ Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (meaning State of the Masses), the RCC formally abolished and Qadhafi elevated to the position of Leader of the Revolution by popular acclaim. A call was also made for the creation of the ‘Armed People’ – in effect the ‘militarisation’ of Libya, in which it would become policy for all Libyans to receive armed military training.

The leadership hailed the event one of momentous historical significance. In their view, the Libyan revolution was the first revolution not to end in betrayal. As Jalloud, until Sebha the Prime Minister, claimed in his address to the Congress: ‘For the first time in history, rulers have handed over power to the people.’ Indeed, ever since the Sebha declaration, in their speeches about the revolution Qadhafi and his co-thinkers have, for this reason, asserted that the Libyan revolution has reopened the way to human liberation – the Era of Masses. To quote from Qadhafi at a symposium on the Green Book in Tripoli last year:

‘The Jamahiriya is today the cornerstone of a new era, the Era of the Masses, which resolves every matter in the masses’ interest ... The Jamahiriya is the symbol for ending the present world of racism, fascism and reaction, the world of exploitation, injustice and oppression, the world of the threat of war’. [18]

The question is: does this claim to represent a new international socialist order have any justification? The first thing to say is that Qadhafi’s claim rests on a totally different basis than the Bolsheviks, when they created the Comintern. The Bolsheviks claim that Soviet Russia was the foundation of a new international socialist order was predicated firmly on an act of self-emancipation by the Russian working class. In Libya, no such revolutionary self-emancipation of the working class has occurred; yet without it there can be no real socialism.

The Basic Peoples Congresses established in the workplaces after the Sebha declaration were not soviets; the management were not accountable to the congresses and workers had no control over production. Qadhafi planned to introduce his version of socialism from above, after the formal declaration on popular authority. At most this meant the formation of workers’ cooperatives – what he described as ‘partnership’. The basis of this system was outlined in part 2 of the Green Book, entitled The Solution to the Economic Problem: Socialism, in which Qadhafi calls on workers to overthrow the wages system and set up partnerships on the grounds that a ‘partner’ will be ‘devoted to his productive work because the impetus for devotion to production is that he gets a satisfaction of his needs through production. But whoever works for a wage has no incentive to work.’

Productivity then is the key motivation behind the establishments of the partnerships. As in the case of Yugoslavia, with which there is much co-operation and idea swapping (Qadhafi and Tito were good chums) the creation of co-operatives has provided a vehicle for management. Workers receive certain administrative responsibilities but not control over the forces of production. Strikes in Libya are strictly proscribed, whilst Qadhafi has maintained resolute opposition to trade unions, equating them with manifestations of ‘tribalism’. [19] One of the more serious ramifications of their introduction was the subversion of a very militant trade union movement.

This led to the ‘producers’ revolution’, as it became known, which was launched amidst a fanfare of publicity on the ninth anniversary of the 1st September Revolution in 1978. Speaking at Martyrs Square, Tripoli, Qadhafi urged workers to ‘extend the right to strike and transform it into the right of workers to own the means of production, for workers to be transformed from hired hands to partners, controlling their own management.’ [20]. Fine words, perhaps, but what actually happened in the process of carrying out the producers’ revolution was markedly different, the expropriation of private capital, which followed the speech, and the setting up of workers partnerships, called vocational congresses, was assigned to the newly inaugurated Movement of Revolutionary Committees. As Qadhafi himself declared: ‘The organisation of the struggle for this, throughout the world, should be the task of the revolutionary committees, which should act secretly or publicly, depending on the circumstances.’ [21] In other words, the producers revolution in Libya was, in character with the history of revolutionary Libya, an act of substitutionalism: the revolutionary committees took the place of workers’ self-activity.

The ‘march on the factories’ Qadhafi called for in his speech turned out to be a staged takeover orchestrated by the revolutionary committees, and in each case the owner was promised compensation and allowed to keep the money which was banked. [22] The first stage began immediately after the speech, with the formal appropriation of twenty seven companies; it was followed by a second stage on 29th September and 1st October, which saw a further 22 taken over; then on 5th October nine more were seized. [23]. After that, the ‘march’ began to run out of steam. The Libyan working class, on the whole, demonstrated little enthusiasm. In some areas, the attempt to create vocational congresses failed dismally, whilst in those formed the level of attendance and interest was pretty poor. Time and again, Qadhafi and the revolutionary committees were forced to wage campaigns to stimulate involvement in the joint management of the workplaces. [24]

All power to the revolutionary committees: 1979 [25]

It was after the producers’ revolution failed to deliver the desired results that Qadhafi came to the conclusion that the role of the revolutionary committees was insufficient to ensure worker participation in management or mobilise political support for the new jamahiri system. He decided that the essentially agitational and propaganda functions of the committees had to be strengthened with powers of enforcement. A motion, argued and proposed by Qadhafi and his supporters, was duly put through the GPC on 1st March 1979, without serious opposition, assigning to the committees some formal authority.

The new powers the committees received, and which were increasingly augmented as 1979 went on, were considerable. The committees were made responsible for the supervision of elections at the level of the Basic Peoples Congresses, given veto and nomination rights over all candidates for administrative posts on the peoples committees chosen by the Basic Peoples Congresses, and empowered to hold recall elections at will. In addition, the committees were assigned major security and police powers, including the right to arrest, hold courts and administer ‘revolutionary’ justice. They operate from a central headquarters in Tripoli, called the Mathoba, or Lion’s Den, publish and sell a regular paper, Al Zahaf Al Akhdar (The Green March) and members enjoy the privilege of immunity from the official security apparatus and are rewarded with generally higher incomes and benefits, such as travel abroad.

The Revolutionary Committee Movement is the key to Qadhafi’s power and control of Libya. It was formed according to the following process. Following Qadhafi’s call for the establishment of revolutionary committees, just after the Sebha Declaration, intelligence reports on the most active and loyal revolutionary individuals in locations and organisations throughout Libya were drawn up and sent to Qadhafi’s office at Azzizziya barracks, to the south of Tripoli. Those handpicked by Qadhafi’s office were then urged to call meetings of prospective committee members. The names of those who responded, usually students and others who had attended Green Book seminars and camps, were then fed back to Qadhafi’s office, which compared the lists of the founding members with prior intelligence reports to ensure there was no infiltration of the movement.

Once approved, those selected became founding members and were sent to special training camps, where they were taught how to provide intelligence reports on their area or workplace, given technical advice on propaganda dissemination, provided with armed training and issued with personal weapons. They then returned to the area for which they were responsible and recruited new members. The founding members, however, were to remain the movement’s leadership. Secondary members, who joined after the initial establishment of the movement, were – and still are – seldom admitted to closed meetings of the founding members. Committee leaders, called speakers, were invariably founding members, and communicated upwards with the centralized committee leadership, though all core members shared responsibility in their field of activity.

The structure of the revolutionary committees is extensive and their influence pervasive. Committees exist in schools, offices and factories, though the most important, in terms of status, are found in the universities, army and the city districts. At national level the office of the Revolutionary Committee Movement, which is in fact a branch of Qadhafi’s office, supervises the activity of the movement. Policies are implemented by Qadhafi himself convening a meeting of committee speakers from the relevant areas. If changes are deemed necessary in education, for example, Qadhafi will call together speakers from the educational revolutionary committees and decide strategy. There exists no structural links between one committee and another on the ground. All lines of communication are strictly vertical with Qadhafi himself at the top.

The Revolutionary Committee Movement is in fact, if not legally the real authority in Libya. It is in total control of military organisation and dominates university bodies. Revolutionary committee members in the armed forces have standing orders from Qadhafi, the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Libyan Armed Forces to reject any orders they find suspicious and arbitrarily arrest any officer believed to be conspiring against the regime. The effective leaders of the movement are some forty or fifty members, chiefly the speakers of the most powerful committees, who meet on a regular basis with Qadhafi to formulate the country’s policy and political direction. It is this grouping which effectively rules Libya.

The Revolutionary Committee Movement has gradually superseded and ousted the RCC. In the Autumn of 1980, when Jalloud accused the revolutionary committees of abusing their power (they were conducting a series of revolutionary trials), and called the leaders to his office to discuss the issue, the committees responded by summoning him to their office and arresting his brother-in-law as well as various other relatives of RCC members and a number of high ranking military figures.

Alongside the Revolutionary Committee Movement, there has grown up a Libyan women’s committee movement. Instigated by Qadhafi, their members are recruited in an identical way to revolutionary committee members and they similarly report back to Qadhafi’s office. Most estimates put their numbers very low, though the Revolutionary Committee Movement itself, for which no membership figures are available, tallies many thousands. [26].

The bureaucracy and the world crisis

The Revolutionary Committee Movement is a political formation which operates separately from the business of economic and industrial management. The administration of the Libyan economy is the responsibility of the various secretariats, of which the most important are the secretariats of Finance, Planning, Oil, Heavy Industry, Economy and Light Industry, Agriculture and Land Reclamation, Housing, Transport and Communication. It is these departments of government, and the huge army of technocrats they employ, that plans outputs and investments, fixes production targets, working hours and manpower levels, draws up the development budgets, signs trade agreements and performs the myriad of other activities carried out in state capitalist societies the world over.

The power of the bureaucracy in Libya has expanded rapidly with the switch to centralised economic administration and planning undertaken by the RCC after the 1st September revolution. Since then its power has grown successively, corresponding with the programme of industrialisation and the expropriation of private capital, including the abolition of the privately owned retail marked in consumer products. Like any other state bureaucracy it has historically displayed two central objectives: capital accumulation and its own self-preservation. In fact, the two are closely linked, as the power and interest of the bureaucracy are identified, and depend on, capital accumulation.

In contemporary Libya oil has been the inevitable lynchpin in the process of capital accumulation. The RCC, following the overthrow of the monarchy, aimed to utilise revenues from oil production to diversify the economy away from oil and promote general economic self-sufficiency. [27] It was a bold and ambitious plan, but the boom in oil prices in 1973 created the illusion that it was possible. The underlying fear that preoccupied the RCC was that, if the country didn’t industrialise fast, oil revenues, which could be expected to decline after 25 years, would reduce Libya to its former state of pauperism and dependency.

The pattern of accumulation was governed by centralised planning. In the early years, agriculture was the main priority. The RCC set the objective of making Libya fully self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs by the turn of the century, and the bureaucracy was given the task of administering the transformation. Despite the millions poured into land reclamation and mechanisation, however, it soon became clear that it was an unrealistic policy for the time span concerned. Production continually fell short of target, obliging the state planners, in the current 1981–85 Transformation Plan, to cut back funds to 7.4 percent of the total budget, from 15.8 percent in the previous 1976–80 Transformation Plan. [28]

The emphasis has now shifted to industrialisation, but the results have not faired much better. The centrepiece of the strategy is a series of heavy industrial complexes (called industrial fortresses) connected with the utilization of the country’s indigenous resources. Under the 1976–80 plan a giant chemical works was built at Abu Kamash, completed in 1980, and which produces plastics and other by-products of oil. [29] In the present 1980–85 plan, construction of further industrial complexes is underway at Ras Lanouf, Zawia, Zuwara, Sirte, Mersa Brega and Mistrata, [30] where a massive iron and steel plant is envisaged, using local ore reserves. The whole programme, however, has been hit by delays and administrative and technical problems, which have now been compounded by the effects of the world oil glut. Last year, a decision was taken to cut most of the associated industries planned for construction around Ras Lanouf.

The problems incurred indicate that Libya, despite many early successes, including the development of advanced welfare services, operates under the same constraints imposed by the world capitalist system as any other developing Third World country. Plentiful oil revenues may have periodically helped to ease the country’s dependency, and cushioned development from some aspects of the world crisis, but Libya has been systematically no more able to diversify the economy away from oil than Cuba has from sugar. The country is trapped within an international division of labour, and the prospects for development have looked ever bleaker as the world crisis has unfolded.

In the meantime, in response to the American trade embargo imposed by Reagan in March 1983, Libya has gradually shifted the axis of economic relations to Europe and the Soviet Union, trading oil in barter deals with Moscow and other Eastern European states. Indeed, the long-term outlook, short of the current authorities being toppled, is one of ever closer relations with the Russian economy. There has already occurred a corresponding political swing towards the USSR: in 1981 Libya joined with two other Russian allies, Ethiopia and South Yemen, in the formation of the Red Sea Pact. Qadhafi’s earlier anti-Moscow rhetoric has begun to subside and the USSR is now spoken of as a ‘progressive’ and ‘friendly’ country. In March this year, Qadhafi, for the first time, opened the possibility of Libya offering the USSR military facilities. [31]

As long as the country was buoyed up by the large surpluses that accrued from oil production, the regime could survive and accumulate capital with an economy that was otherwise unprofitable. There was no express need to squeeze additional surplus value from the Libyan working class or the substantial migrant labour force. The real trouble started with the sharp fall in oil prices, registered from 1980 onwards. Suddenly it became a matter of urgency to raise production. In 1982, with no foreseeable upturn in the international oil market, the bureaucracy panicked and the battle to make Libyan agriculture and industry productive was on.

The scale of the crisis became public at the GPC in 1983. Mohammed Rajab, the Secretary of the GPC, told the opening session of Congress: ‘1982 witnessed continued international economic developments and a deterioration in the oil market, characterised by a continued fall in demand and pressure on prices, which led to a reduction in sales prices set by OPEC.’ Libya, he reported, ‘suffered a reduction in prices of no less than 15 percent, coupled with a considerable reduction in the volume of exports’. He warned that future budget levels had to be realistic and reflect the broader economic situation in the world. ‘The continued world economic recession throughout 1983,’ said Rajab, ‘means that the original figures set for oil revenues will be hard to reach.’ [32]

The Planning Secretary Fawzi Al Shakshuki, proposed a number of crisis measures: (i) a reduction in consumer spending to release funds for capital investment; (ii) a moratorium on the start of new projects, except those of strategic importance, with the accent on those already begun; (iii) utilization of existing production capacity; (iv) cuts in administrative spending and a winding-down of the size of the foreign workforce; (v) restrictions on imported foreign consumer goods. [33]

The bureaucracy was clearly attempting to salvage the process of capital accumulation at the expense of the Libyan working class. In these circumstances, what was the response of the revolutionary committees? Their role, quite unmistakably, was to mobilise the whole country for capital accumulation. Revolutionary committees have launched campaigns for higher production and efficiency, both in agriculture and in the factories, urging the working class to unpaid overtime for the sake of the revolution. In fact, the revolutionary committees have been remarkably successful in persuading the working class to voluntarily submit to its own increased exploitation, their extensive powers of agitation and propaganda have prevailed against any resistance that might have emerged at the levels of the vocational congresses and the Basic Peoples Congresses.

Take the case of Qadhafi himself, the leader of the revolution, who insists that he is not part of the administration. In the run up to this year’s GPC in March he campaigned among the Basic Peoples Congresses for belt-tightening and sacrifices aimed at reducing the burden on Libya’s General Peoples Budget. He told a women’s gathering of Tripoli Basic Peoples’ Congress on 23rd December 1983: ‘In order to reduce the burden on the General Peoples’ Budget we should look for another means to get our salaries.’ [34] He proposed the formation of ‘socialist services’, in which workers would take responsibility for making such sectors as electricity, housing, radio and TV stations internally profitable without drawing on outside subsidies.

This tells us that there is an organic link between the Revolutionary Committee Movement and the bureaucracy. The movement was drawn into the management offensive because it shares the same interest in defending Libyan state capitalism. Indeed, the Revolutionary Committee Movement has its roots in the same strata of intelligentsia as the bureaucracy. Both the administration and the Revolutionary Committee Movement have a common identification in the state bureaucracy and apparatus. In addition, the majority of revolutionary committee members are state employees, and the leadership of the movement possesses posts as managers or officials. To give a recent example: the boss of the Libyan News Agency in London, Saleh Nejem, who recently sacked four Arab journalists, is a known member of the revolutionary committees.

It is in their capacity as a formation which controls capital and extracts surplus value for the accumulation of capital by the state that the state authorities in Libya, both the administrators and the revolutionary committees, constitute a ruling class – a state capitalist class. Just because they do not as individuals own capital does not mean that they do not relate to capital as a ruling class. Capitalist relations of production can be expressed in more than one property form. In Libya the predominant property form is ‘partnership’ – workers co-operatives controlled in fact, if not in principle, by the state authorities – with a residue of nationalised companies in which such systems have not yet been established. [35]

The Libyan working class

The impact of the austerity measures has strengthened the influence of the most backward elements in Libyan Society, particularly that of the clergy, conservative bureaucrats and ex- obviously appropriated capitalists. This has been registered most obviously at the level of the Basic Peoples Congresses in Libya. An attempt by Gadhafi earlier this year for a proposed law providing women with equal marital status and the same duty to carry guns and undergo military training as men was bitterly resisted, and resulted in his first serious defeat at a GPC in March. At the same time, corresponding with the internal shift to the right, there has occurred a parallel growth of rightist opposition groups abroad. Most, like the British-based National Front for the Salvation of Libya, are anti-working class and reactionary organisations who want parliamentary democracy. Their backers are the United States, Egypt and Sudan, and the National Front has received CIA funds for a radio station which broadcasts to Libya from outside Khartoum.

Qadhafi has fought these groups ruthlessly and relentlessly, both inside and outside Libya. After another group, the Libyan Democratic Movement, released a statement in February 1980 saying it was establishing cells in Libya ‘to prepare for an uprising’, the revolutionary committees convened a meeting at Benghazi’s Gar Younis University and called for a campaign for the ‘physical liquidation of counter-revolutionaries’. More recently, following the defeat of the women motion at the GPC in February, Qadhafi mobilised the revolutionary committees for a new offensive inside and outside Libya to destroy the ‘threat of counter-revolution’. Huge women’s marches were almost immediately organised in protest ‘at the rejection of the proposed women’s law, culminating in a decree from Qadhafi ,that the decision had been overturned in ‘the interests of the revolution’. Abroad, meanwhile, the revolutionary committees moved to smash the opposition in exile. In Britain, increasingly an important headquarter for the opposition, students from the revolutionary committees took over the Peoples Bureau and commenced a campaign against the opposition which ended in the siege drama at St James Square.

The Libyan revolution is now more under attack than at any time in the past. United States military aggression has emerged as a very real threat with which the Libyans are having to live. In August 1981, F-14s from the USS Nimitz shot down two planes from the Libyan air force whilst conducting exercises just off the Libyan coast. In March 1983, the Pentagon once more ordered Nimitz to a station off the Libyan coast and despatched AWAC surveillance planes to Egypt in another attempt to provoke a showdown. In August 1983, it was the turn of the Eisenhower. Britain has also engaged in military provocations; last year British forces joined the Egyptian army for exercises not far from the Libyan border. In the meantime, the effort of holding out, without making any concessions to the West, is imposing an enormous strain on the country.

The Western powers rightly perceive that Libya, through its support for national liberation movements and struggles, poses a challenge to their interests, but this is not an indication that contemporary Libya is a socialist country. Strident anti-imperialism, of the kind expressed by Qadhafi and the Libyan revolutionary leadership, should not be conflated with socialism. When Marx spoke of socialism he meant the act of working class self-emancipation. Taken on these terms socialism does not exist in contemporary Libya. What I have attempted to show here is that the 1st September revolution was not a socialist revolution but an anti-colonial revolution led by the intelligentsia. Seizing advantage of the objective crisis of the feudal Sanussi state, the Free Unionist officers and their student allies filled a vacuum created by the dissipation of the workers’ movement after 1967.

Similarly, nor should the expropriation of private capital be confused with the establishment of a socialist economy with socialist relations of production. The claims that Libya has since then undergone a transition to socialism are belied because the producers’ revolution – through which this was supposed to be accomplished – amounted to a series of structural reforms instigated from above and intended to make the economy more efficient. Whatever their own subjective feelings and instincts, the revolutionary committees are the real ‘personifications of capital’ in Libya today. The politics espoused by Muammer Qadhafi is a radical form of Arab nationalism, not socialism. His view of socialism is a totally incoherent one.

The prospects for socialism in Libya depend on the development of the working class. This has grown enormously since the beginnings of the oil industry. In 1978, out of a total population of 3,245,300, the workforce accounted for 772,800, though 32 percent were immigrant workers. The 72,804 employees paying social insurance contributions in 1961 grew to 128,138 in 1966, to 191,484 in 1971, and to 340,000 in 1976. [36]

Not all the increase has been in the ‘non-productive’ tertiary sectors of the economy; between 1973 and 1980 employment in manufacturing doubled from 26,000 to 56,000 and as the number of heavy and light industrial projects are finished it is bound to expand again. In effect, this means that the Libyan working class of today is a higher percentage of the population than the Russian working class of 1917. For the moment, this numerical strength has not been translated into a political advance because the workers have no independent revolutionary organisation capable of expressing their interests. The dilemma for Qadhafi of course is that as he is forced to take further crisis measures in the economy popular support for the revolution will begin to wane and the regime become more vulnerable to some form of right-wing orientated challenge, perhaps from within the army itself.


1. Jamahiriya International Report, Vol. 2 No. 20, February 1984.

2. Also called the Great Al Fateh Revolution.

3. Lindberg, A General Economic Appraisal of Libya, New York 1952.

4. G. Wright, Libya: A Modern History, London 1982.

5. Ibid.

6. P. Enahoro, Africa Now, February 1983.

7. M. Bianco, Gadafi: Voice From The Desert, London 1975.

8. R. First, Libya: The Elusive Revolution, Harmondsworth 1974.

9. Zawiyas were religious lodges of the Sanussi order, which took tributes from the caravan trade. The Sanussi ruling class, whose power rested on these tributes, played an intermediate role in redistributing the surplus from one society to another.

10. Wright, op. cit.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. For details see J.A. Allan, Libya: The Experience of Oil. See chapter on Planning and Economic Development Since 1969, especially p. 236.

14. Sadat had taken over on Nasser’s death on 28th September 1970 and was gradually steering Egypt away from radical Arab nationalism.

15. The Green Book, 1979 edition.

16. At least 40 Trotskyists, Marxists and members of the Islamic Liberation Movement were held in detention during the cultural revolution and after. See Amnesty International Annual Report, 1974–75.

17. Enahoro interview, op. cit.

18. JIR, Vol. 1 No. 22, March 4 1983.

19. Most recently in a telex of a speech to Conference on Arab Workers Culture in Tripoli on 23rd December, courtesy of JANA Newsagency; there are many other examples – in 1982 Libyan delegates to the African Union of Petrol and Simili criticised the concept of trade unions.

20. Arab Dawn, September 1978.

21. Ibid.

22. Arab Dawn, November 1978.

23. Ibid.

24. For example, Qadhafi speech to GPC in Jamahiriya Review, February 1982.

25. The information in this section is mainly based on my own unpublished material; a bourgeois account of the revolutionary committees can be found in an account submitted to a conference on Economic and Social Development of Libya at SOAS in July 1981 called The Transformation of Mass Political Institutions in Revolutionary Libya: Structural Solutions to a Behavioral Problem, by Monte Palmer and Omar Al Fathaly of Florida State University.

26. See Palmer and Fathaly, op. cit.

27. Arab Dawn, July 1976.

28. Ibid. Details are provided here.

29. Some details in JIR, Vol. 1 No. 9, 3rd September 1982.

30. Ibid.

31. JIR, Vol. 2 No. 25, 14 April 1984.

32. Jamahiriya Review, April 1983.

33. Ibid.

34. Telexed Qadhafi speech courtesy of JANA Newsagency, December 1983.

35. According to the orthodox Trotskyist position, Libya must logically fit into that unhappy category of deformed workers states. In fact, the state appropriation of capital, the cornerstone of this theory, has been far more comprehensive in Libya than it has in Nicaragua. Yet the advocates of the deformed workers state theory, or its many variants, seem very uncomfortable about putting Libya alongside Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia, etc. I have yet to see one reference to Libya as a member of this category by anyone of an orthodox Trotskyist persuasion, of whatever stripe. The reason for this omission would appear to be Libya’s previous sharp ideological attack on the USSR. Perhaps, if Libya pulls closer to the Soviet Union, it will be admitted. Either way, the theory’s link with Stalinism is clear.

36. Source: Census and Statistics Department, 1977.

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