Workers' Liberty #56



"The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflict to oblige humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society; or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obligated to become a Marxist; no one is obligated to swear by Lenin's name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed towards this, that the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends."

L D Trotsky

Who will win the peace?

After 11 weeks of NATO bombing, Yugoslavia (Serbia) has surrendered. NATO went to war to force the Rambouillet "agreement" on the Serbian regime. Rambouillet proposed to restore to Kosova, which was populated by more than 90% ethnic Albanians, autonomy within the Serbian state.

That would be a very great improvement for the Kosova Albanians. Rambouillet was not, however, primarily pro-Albanian. NATO's prime concern at Rambouillet was to curb, stifle and frustrate Albanian nationalism. There is a more or less continuous area populated by Albanians stretching from the Albanian state through Kosova to parts of Macedonia and Montenegro. They are divided by artificial borders. NATO's concern was that, once Albanian resistance began to take the form of guerrilla warfare, the increasingly savage Serb oppression of the Kosova Albanians could destabilise much of the Balkans.

For most of a terrible decade, Kosova Albanian resistance to ethnic oppression - they were kicked out of jobs, basic schooling, higher education and medical care, and attacked by soldiers and cops when they tried to organise schools of their own - had taken the form of unarmed civil disobedience.

To prevent destabilisation, NATO wanted to secure some tolerable conditions of national life for the Kosovars, before Milosevic and the Kosova Liberation Army set the Balkans alight. Thus Rambouillet laid it down that the KLA should be disarmed while Serb soldiers and police largely controlled Kosova.

They started bombing Serbia in the expectation that Milosevic would cave in quickly. Perhaps even saw it as a matter of giving him an excuse to cave in quickly. On past experience in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic was a man they could do business with. The Serb drive against the Kosovars which had been going on for many months, ostensibly against the KLA, but increasingly taking on the character of ethnic cleansing against the whole population, was both NATO's reason, because it signified that things were on the brink of getting out of control, and NATO's excuse. It was both - both the real reason, or part of it, and the "good reason".

NATO may well have bargained for Milosevic to defy a few days, or even a couple of weeks of bombing. They may well have bargained for Milosevic to use that short time for a brutal drive against the Kosovars. That could have been advantageous to NATO, by diminishing the subsequent problem of disarming the KLA and keeping the Kosovar people under NATO control. But plainly NATOthought that a few days, or at most a couple of weeks, of bombing would be enough to bring Milosevic to heel. If they had believed otherwise they would not necessarily have made better preparations to protect the Kosovars; but most likely they would not have started bombing.

From the start some establishment critics said that the bombing could not possibly achieve the stated goal, protecting the Kosovars, without a simultaneous invasion by NATO ground troops. Evidently Milosevic thought likewise. As in some previous wars, most spectacularly in Vietnam, heavy high-tech bombing from the air could not stop a relatively "low-tech" enemy on the ground.

Far from bringing Milosevic quickly to their bidding, the bombing gave him cover for what must have been a pre-planned all-out drive to kill or clear out as many as two million Kosova Albanians. The noise of the exploding NATO bombs in Serbia, the bombs that were supposed to protect the Kosovars, formed hellish background music to the catastrophe that engulfed the Albanians.

Wrong-footed by Milosevic, NATO could neither retreat by stopping the bombs nor up the ante by immediately dropping ground troops into Kosova. It did not have to do either. It had the power to wage a long high-tech air war, with minimal NATO casualties. The power to bomb the Serbian economy back decades. Meanwhile, the Serb chauvinists would go on doing their awful work in Kosova: mass killings, rapes, burnings, the driving out of many hundreds of thousands of Albanian people, until there were no Kosovars left. Once Milosevic refused to capitulate after a short spell of bombing nothing but large numbers of ground troops could have shielded the Kosovars. NATO remained fundamentally concerned with securing stable conditions in the Balkans for the "imperialism of free trade" and with asserting US power, not with the rights and interests of the Kosovars.

NATO remained what it always had been. As we wrote in Workers' Liberty in April: "Nobody should trust NATO politicians, or NATO bombs and troops. Socialists should not take political responsibility for them or advise them on what to do next". We could not support NATO. Our camp was the "Third Camp" of the working class and oppressed peoples aspiring to liberation. Yet if NATO had stopped the bombing after the first few days, when catastrophe started to engulf the Kosovars, that would have given Milosevic a tremendous victory and guaranteed him a free hand to crush and disperse the people of Kosova. Unfortunately, he would not have needed to fear harsh reckoning in the near future from forces inside Serbia.

Undoubtedly the bombing did drive the Serb opposition - most of them nationalists and indifferent or hostile to the rights of the Kosovars - into solidarising with Milosevic against the enemy in the sky. Yet if Milosevic had won an easy victory over NATO and realised the old Serb nationalist dream of driving the Albanians out of Kosova, that would have been for him what Egypt's US gift "victory" over Britain, France and Israel, at Suez in 1956, was for Egypt's Abdul Gamel Nasser. It would have raised him above challenge by any opposition in the calculable future; immediately, it would have meant extirpation for the Kosovar Albanians. The future of the Kosova Albanians, if they were to have any future in Kosova, depended on the outcome of NATO's air war.

Now NATO politics expressed but simultaneously obscured by its military action will come to the fore again.

In April's WL we called for independence for Kosova and arms for the Kosovars. We denounced NATO's desire to maintain a strong rump-Yugoslav state and conserve the national borders in the region regardless of the rights of such groups as the Kosovar Albanians. That desire has been consistently expressed in US and European Union policy towards ex-Yugoslavia since 1987, when Milosevic started his drive to tighten Serbian control over Kosova and create as much of a Greater Serbia as he could. Those politics are imperialistic in the broad sense, though to claim that the war was about NATO making an attack of the old colonial-imperialist sort on Serbia's national rights defies the facts and whitewashes Milosevic.

Now it seems that we must denounce NATO on a further count: its public acceptance in advance that the Serb population of Kosova will now be driven out. At the start of Milosevic's recent "ethnic cleansing", they were less than 10%. We do not know how large a portion of the Serbs living in Kosova were actively involved in the assaults on their Albanian neighbours. Most likely, many were. But the ethnic rule of thumb is, for consistent democrats, no acceptable measure of anything on either the Serb or the Albanian side. The idea that all Serbs are guilty should be regarded with the same hostility as we regard Milosevic's attitude to the Kosova Albanians. That Kosovar Albanians and the KLA will feel "it's our turn now" and try to act on it is only another facet of the murderous ethnic antagonisms that led to such horror in Kosova. Those socialists who backed the Kosovars against Milosevic can have no part of it. Socialists must insist: democracy, not revenge!


This still-unfolding tragedy is one of a long series of ethnic conflicts and wars in Balkan history. As the wars produced in Croatia and Bosnia by the break-up of Yugoslavia showed earlier in this decade, there are no good and bad peoples in these wars. The oppressors change roles with the oppressed, at each turn of events. The central problem is that which Trotsky, a war correspondent in the Balkans during the wars of 1912 and 1913, described like this: the borders of the states are drawn across "the living bodies of the nations". Today, that is still true. The peoples have a deeply felt - and often deeply frustrated - sense of ethnic-national identity. The working class socialist answer to this situation was worked out as long ago as 1910, at a conference of Balkan socialists in Belgrade.

Trotsky commented: "The positive programme that follows from this is: a Balkan federal republic."

The 1910 statement read: "To free ourselves from particularism and narrowness; to abolish frontiers that divide peoples who are in part identical in language and culture, in part economically bound up together; finally, to seep away forms of foreign domination both direct and indirect that deprive the people of their right to determine their destiny for themselves."

The Communist International endorsed this programme, linking it to an immediate struggle for socialism. The programme did not propose to brush aside or suppress national aspirations, but to drain the chauvinist poison out of them by way of a consistently democratic arrangement of their affairs and the maximum ethnic-national self-rule within the Balkan Federation.

Superficially, Tito's Yugoslavia seemed to be a realisation of that programme in a part of the Balkans. In the late mid-'40s the Stalinist rulers of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia even made some efforts to unite their countries; it appeared that the inclusion of the Albanian state in Yugoslavia and its union with Kosova would lead to the creation of a separate Albanian Republic inside Federal Yugoslavia. Russian interference, and then the open break between Tito and Stalin (mid-1948) put an end to all that.

In fact, it is pure illusion to think that Tito's Yugoslavia was a mini version of the Balkan Federation of 1910 and Communist International's Balkan programme. Even in its later looser form, the Stalinistic Tito regime did everything from on top (see Barry Finger's article in WL55). In Kosova, in particular, rule from Belgrade was always imposed by superior force, never freely chosen by the people of the area.

The main point for an understanding of the ethnic-national conflicts of the '80s and '90s is that Yugoslavia did not approach its national problems in a democratic spirit on any level; it did not allow maximum self-determination for its component people. The 1910 programme has not been tried and failed because of some deep unreason in the people; it has never been tried. Within the six Yugoslav Republics and two (sometimes) autonomous regions, Kosova and Vojvodina, the boundary lines within Yugoslavia still cut through "the living bodies of the nations". Most of the Republics had national minorities, but without self-government - the Serbs in Croatia, for example, and the Albanians in Montenegro and Macedonia. Behind this arrangement lay the idea that the existence of such interlacings - with minorities dependent for their rights on the good will of the central government - would bind Yugoslavia together, like jutting bits of a jigsaw puzzle locking into other pieces. The 1910 and Communist International programmes had proposed to render the ethnic-national antagonisms non-toxic by giving each nation and fragment of nation maximum freedom, thus also building a common democratic respect for the freedoms of others.

Tito's Yugoslavia still drove its internal borders through the living bodies of its component peoples. The Titoite state was created by conquest from within of territories by the Partisan Army which Tito and his lieutenants created after mid-1941 to fight the German and Italian occupation. Ethnic-national aspirations were not satisfied, but bureaucratically balanced and set off one against another, and frozen in a police state. They unfroze to revive, and be revived, when an economic crisis, triggered by Yugoslavia's interactions with international capitalism, exploded in the 1980s.

The explosive revival of Croat and Serb chauvinisms in the late 1980s triggered and licensed other nationalisms. The Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia, who should have long ago had self-rule anddid not, were mobilised in the cause of building a Greater Serbia. How? By way of a primitive imperialist expansion that aimed to replace - "cleanse" - the population of an area and plant it with Serbs. A devil's carnival of bloody-handed chauvinism spread wide across areas of former Yugoslavia.

Within Yugoslavia, Kosova had a special place: it was what Ireland was for centuries to England, an internal colony. Trotsky called the Serb occupation of Kosova in 1912 an act of imperialism. The Albanians in Kosova were subjected to massacres in 1918 and 1919-20. They were being driven out to Albania and Turkey. They were subjected to forced Serbification; their own language, literature and history was suppressed. That was their fate in the Serb Empire from the end of the First World War. They suffered an identical fate for more than half of the life of Tito's Yugoslavia.

The Kosovan territory was conquered, like all of Yugoslavia, but more so, and occupied by the Partisans in 1945. There was another massacre. Partly because the dissident Titoite Stalinists feared that the Kosovars could be used as agents of the Albanian state, which supported Stalin's Russia in the conflict with Yugoslavia. Everything that had happened to the Kosovar Albanians in the 1920s and '30s was repeated in the '50s and '60s. About a quarter of a million of them were driven out to Turkey in the mid-'50s.

Then, from the late '60s, as a result of mass student action and changes in the Tito regime, to the late '80s, Kosova's Albanians experienced a brief Golden Age. The 1974 constitution gave Kosova all the attributes of a full Republic except the name and the notional right to secede which it bestowed. Yet the arrangements were full of contradictions.

The clumsy bureaucratic nonsense that characterised the Tito regime even at its most benign shows clearly the Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro remained cut off from Kosova, though they were contiguous with Kosova, by arbitrary administrative decision; all of them remained cut off from the adjoining Albanian state. Rather than give the Kosovars the status of a full Republic, they kept it as an autonomous - but no longer subordinate - part of the Serb Republic; real Kosovar Albanian self-rule within this clumsy arrangement demanded that Serbia's "autonomous region" be given considerable rights of veto over decisions of the Serb Republic. As if to illustrate Karl Marx's dictum that a nation which oppresses another can never be free, this frustrated the self-ruling Serbs in the Serb Republic! The age of Kosova Albanian self rule ended with a brutal Serb drive to turn Kosova back into a direct rule internal colony.


Socialists have responded to the war in three ways. Some have seen Kosovar national rights as the main issue. Others have seen the Kosovars as irrelevant or subsidiary elements in a conflict between Serbia and imperialism. A third group has tried to amalgamate the first two approaches. In Britain the radical or would-be revolutionary "anti-imperialists" united with pacifists, with Stalinists who think Serbia is the last surviving "socialist" state in Europe, with anti-EU people, anti-Americans and anti-Germans to form a peace campaign around the slogans "Stop the Bombing! Stop the War!"

At the start of the war, Workers' Liberty thought "Stop the Bombing!" made sense. Bombing could not achieve its supposed objective, defence of the Kosovars. But the Serb drive to clear out the whole Albanian population of Kosova, killing large numbers of them, changed the meaning of that slogan. But how, on what basis, was the war to be stopped? From what vantage point were they opposing the bombing? Except to those who claimed, in order to fit their agitation into old models, that the war was about NATO using a national-minority problem as a convenient excuse for colonial or semi-colonial conquest of Serbia, it was plain that the war could be stopped by Serbia ceasing its terror against the Kosovars.

What does it mean to call for "Stop the bombing" while flatly opposing Kosovar self-determination, failingto mention it, or saying in the small print that Kosovar self-determination is desirable but improbable and anyway secondary?

In a war, one side of which was doing what the Serb state was doing in Kosova, what does it mean to focus a campaign around a military-technical slogan telling the other side to stop doing the only thing they are doing?

It means to throw what weight you can muster on Milosevic's side - the side of Serbian imperialism! It implies that NATO bombing of Yugoslav property in which the Belgrade regime claims 1,500 civilians have died is a far greater evil than the deliberate slaughter of unknown, and probably vast, numbers of Kosovars, and the driving from their homes of most of the two million others.

"Stop the Bombing, Stop the War!" (NATO's war) meant "Victory to Milosevic" and "Leave the Kosovars to Milosevic"!

In fact, at meetings of the "Stop the Bombings; Stop the War" campaign, the front rank organisers, the Socialist Workers' Party, were fanatical in their opposition to adding such slogans as "Yugoslavia/Serbia out of Kosova"; "Arm the Kosovars"; "Independence/Self-Determination for Kosova". They wanted the campaign to mean what the slogan they did not dare raise actually means: "Victory to Milosevic". They bolstered their case by agitation, some well-founded and some exaggerated, about the horrors of the NATO bombing.

But all "Do this! Do that!" military-technical comments on a war imply an overall analysis, even if the analysis is not understood or the implications intended. That is why Marxists never take sides, or refuse to take sides, or extrapolate general assessments from specific events or tactics in a war according to such criteria as: who fired the first shot? Who has invaded whose country? Who won the last battle? Who is most savage in pursuit of victory? Which side is our own capitalist government on? We are not always for the defeat of our own capitalist government, irrespective of who they are fighting or why. None of these "case by case" responses will allow you to make sense of a war: frequently they will lead you to radically misunderstand what is really going on. If you are honest about it, they will lead you to zig-zag wildly, a kite in the changing winds of the war.

Marxists proceed differently. We ask who is fighting this war, and why? What objectives are they fighting for? What really led to this war? What is the overall international context of the war? If war is the continuation of politics by other means, of what politics is this the continuation?

For example, in World War One, Austro-Hungary, egged on by Germany, started the war, with an ultimatum to Serbia; Germany invaded Belgium and northern France. A very good case could, Lenin agreed, in isolation from the whole international situation, be made for action to rescue "poor little Belgium" and gallant little Serbia. Prussian militarism did commit atrocities. For example when a civilian fired a shot at the German troops marching into Louvain the German army, as reprisal, deliberately destroyed the medieval cathedral there and a library of ancient, rare and precious books. Fully a quarter of the population of Serbia was wiped out during the World War.

Going from "case to case", issue by issue, the parties of the socialist international could not but divide into antagonistic groups reacting differently to part of the picture, their own part. Germany's invading troops were in northern France and in all of Belgium. The Germans could not but see the threat of barbaric Tsarist Russian invasion; the Russians - the once-great Marxist Plekhanov, for example - saw Russia threatened with reduction to the status of a colony, and so on. It was necessary to go beyond part-views and to take an overall political view in order to see how the parts fitted together. It was necessary to take not a national partial viewpoint but an international working class viewpoint. It was only in that way that the specifics could be properly assessed. Only in that way could the overall reality which dominated the specifics be seen.

In certain circumstances, Lenin argued, socialists would support international action to drive the Germans out of Belgium.

"The German imperialists have brazenly violated the neutrality of Belgium, as belligerent states have done always and everywhere, trampling upon all treaties and obligations if necessary. Let us suppose that all states interested in the observance of international treaties should declare war on Germany with the demand that Belgium be liberated and indemnified. In that case, the sympathies of socialists would, of course, be with Germany's enemies. But the whole point is that the Triple (and Quadruple) Entente is waging war, not over Belgium: this is common knowledge and only hypocrites will disguise the fact. Britain is grabbing at Germany's colonies and Turkey; Russia is grabbing at Galacia and Turkey, France wants Alsace-Lorraine and even the left bank of the Rhine; a treaty has been concluded with Italy for the division of the spoils (Albania and Asia Minor); bargaining is going on with Bulgaria and Rumania, also for the division of the spoils. In the present war waged by the governments of today, it is impossible to help Belgium otherwise than by helping to throttle Austria or Turkey, etc! Where does "defence of the fatherland" come in here? Herein lies the specific feature of imperialist war, a war between reactionary-bourgeois and historically outmoded governments for the purpose of oppressing other nations". Socialism and War, 1914

"We must speak the truth to the 'people' who are suffering from the war; that truth is that no defence can be put up against the sufferings of wartime unless the government and the bourgeoisie of every belligerent country are overthrown. To defend Belgium by means of throttling Galicia or Hungary is no 'defence of the fatherland'". The social-chauvinists' sophisms, 1915

In the real situation, two great imperialist blocs were at war. There were "Belgiums" and "Serbias" on both sides: to rescue one on the other side you had to consent to the slavery of the other on "your side". The political method used by the "Stop the bombs, stop the war" camp to judge this war was that of the "social chauvinists" ("socialists in words, chauvinists in deals", as Lenin wrote) in World War One!

Instead of making a concrete picture according to the method outlined above, they made a fetish of being against NATO and ignored everything else, including the attempt to destroy the Albanian Kosovars (some of them, the SWP, made dishonest propaganda for Milosevic). They hung their campaign on military-technical "demands" - demands which implied an analysis - and wound up as a propaganda resource for Milosevic and Yugoslav ethnic imperialism.

Now it would be just as wrong to make a fetish of Kosova. You might have to regard Kosova as a subordinate detail, if NATO's goal was to conquer Yugoslavia, using Kosova as its "gallant little Belgium". Is that what has been happening? There is not the slightest possibility of that. NATO's objective is to get capitalist order and stability on the south-eastern fringe of the EU. Throwing their weight about, trying to be the world's policeman - that is imperialist? Only in a certain context entirely absent here.

Lenin understood that there is no such thing as a revolutionary slogan that is purely negative. You need to say, not just shamefacedly imply, what you are for and why: you need to put it in political context. Because they did not do this, the SWP in the "peace campaign" wound up as public apologists for Slobodan Milosevic, using methods that were, in technique and substance - in the shameless lying and one-sidedness - startlingly like old Stalinist apologies for the USSR. Where old Stalinists (and current supporters of "Milosevic the socialist") wind up in such a position by way of a pixilated positive support for Serbia's "camp", these "Trotskyists" wind up in Milosevic's camp by blinkered negativism towards one side. Their eyes fixed on NATO, they walk backwards into the company of Slobodan Milosevic and his genocidal Dark Age-imperial project on Kosova.

A central fact of life is that both the left and the revolutionary international socialists are, for now, a very weak force; so, politically, is the working class. That is why the demoralised and confused "Marxist" "anti-imperialists" look to even a Milosevic to "give NATO a bloody nose". And why their socialist mirror image, the depoliticised, military-technology armchair generals of the shamefaced "Victory to NATO" camp wound up agitating for ground troops in Kosova.

If NATO puts in ground troops, or bombs, or whatever, it will do it for ruling class reasons, not ours. It will carry out not our political programme, but theirs. The idea that it can be otherwise is fantastic wishful thinking. The idea that socialists should abandon their own political independence for a fantasy, a mere dream of influencing the ruling class to act against their own nature in accordance with ours. The "victory to NATO" socialists are, in the circumstances, less repulsive than the "victory to Milosevic" "Trots". Both, however, are but the two poles of the decomposition of international socialist politics into the chaotic confusion uncovered in this war.

The job of consistent socialists, political pioneers of a renewed mass working class socialist movement is not to cover for Milosevic and demonise NATO, or play the same role the other way round. It is here and now to make propaganda for independent working class politics and to engage in the class struggle. In conflicts like that of the Balkans, our responsibility is to tell the truth, advocate consistent democracy - a democratic Balkan Federation, organised in a network of self-determining, ethnic-national entities. This is an essential part of the programme that will help unite historically the working class across the national-ethnic boundaries and teach them how to drain the blood-filled rivers of hatred, contempt and ethno-centricity that murderously divides.

We are never nationalists. But socialists are always champions of the nationally oppressed. We advocate their right to self-determination, up to independence. This does not imply acceptance of pre-ordained stages - first solve the national questions and then the social questions. A consistently democratic programme on the national question is part of the working class socialist programme. It is the only way the working class - accepting and advocating a democratic framework within which the peoples can live together - can unite. It is the only basis, translated into state structures, on which a socialist society can be organised. That is one lesson of the breakdown of Yugoslavia.

In this war, Workers' Liberty has represented independent working class - socialist - politics against both the morally and politically disgraceful proponents of an anti-imperialism of idiots, the "Victory to Milosevic" element, and against those who though the role of socialists is to support and advise Blair and NATO.

We judged the issues from an overall political assessment of what was going on. We criticised NATO's politics; we will go on doing that during the working out of the peace settlement in the Balkans. We saw Kosova as the central issue - so we are glad that Milosevic has not won.

In the immediate circumstances, NATO victory is the lesser evil. But we do not bow down to the immediate circumstances and the lesser evil. We could not, did not and do not positively support NATO. We reject the delusion that somehow we could or can now persuade NATO to act as an effective political surrogate for the independent working class force which, alas, has yet to recreate itself and which can only be recreated by consistently advocating working class answers in politics rather than supporting ruling class "lesser evils". We indict NATO politics. We shall continue to do so during the working out of the peace settlement in the Balkans, for example as NATO carries out its promises to disarm and repress the Kosova Liberation Army. For the Kosovars, NATO's victory is better than Milosevic's; for the Serb people it does not mean the loss of anything socialists and democrats can support them in claiming.

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