I once challenged Muammar Gaddafi when he suggested that Libya could support revolutionary movements around the world while maintaining agreeable trading relations with world powers.
There’s no precedent I told him, except maybe – I scrambled for a parallel – the efforts of the Bolsheviks after 1917 to spread the revolution while defending the gains made at home.
Had I any books on this subject, he asked. Would I send him some when I reached home? I did. I don’t imagine they reached him or that he ever read them.
But I found the exchange intriguing, congenial and charming.
I first met Gaddafi in 1987, the year after the US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in which his 18-month old daughter Hana was among 17 civilians left dead.
The attack had been justified as retaliation for alleged Libyan involvement in a bombing in Berlin in April 1986, in which two US servicemen and a Turkish woman had perished.
US president Ronald Reagan dubbed Gaddafi “the most evil man in the world”.
I went to Libya make a documentary for Channel 4’s “alternative” current affairs slot, Diverse Reports.
Gaddafi wasn’t coy about his support for groups he regarded as national liberation movements. Wasn’t this certain to continue to enrage Western opinion, I persisted.
His reply was that the Ottoman Empire had occupied Libya for centuries. Then came Italian and later German fascism. No country had lost more people per head in resisting fascism.
Then the British and Americans occupied the country. The British appointed a man called Idris as king. Western companies controlled the new oil wealth. The mass of the people lived in poverty.
Don’t talk to me about violent intervention in foreign countries, was the message.
For long stretches, Gaddafi was an attractive figure for many on the left. He had come to power aged 27 at a moment of global youthful revolutionism.
He rejected the Stalinist model as well as Western capitalism. He instituted free housing and education, banned the imams from politics and promoted the role of women. Against the background of the warmonger Reagan’s ranting, it wasn’t difficult to make a case for defence of Gaddafi’s Libya .
He gave practical support when others were paying lip service to the ANC in South Africa , the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Moros in the Philippines and the Provisional IRA.
As a country that had overthrown imperialism, Libya had a duty to support others still fighting, he told me. The IRA was hitting hard at the British, who had oppressed and humiliated Libyans.
Of course, the Libya presented even to an “alternative” journalist will have been an airbrushed version of a much harsher reality. In theory, the “State of the Masses” was ultra-democratic. In practice, the state held the masses in thrall. Gaddafi’s position as “leader” required no endorsement by the led.
Libya never had a revolution in the sense of the people rising up to free themselves. They discovered that Idris was gone and that a man called Gaddafi was now in charge in a radio broadcast.
Most Libyans welcomed the news. But it was a welcome for something they had played no role in achieving. There was no transforming sense of achievement to set the people abuzz, no structures put in place for control from below.
In time, isolated from the people, dependent on a layer of relatives, army officers and bureaucrats shading into business bosses, and subject to the whims of the markets, Gaddafi deteriorated into a delusional autocrat.
The story of the Gaddafi regime is not a simple tale of horror. There have been elements of tragedy in it too.
The mass of the people have been the victims of the tragedy, and remain their own best hope of freedom for the future.