Workers' Liberty #57


The continuing crisis in Russia

Marxist socialists can be a factor in world politics only to the extent that we can rouse the working class in their own country to be a force in opposition to the ruling class. We can help vanquish despotism abroad only by combatting our own despots.

So should not socialists in NATO countries, especially Britain and the USA, have made it their first duty during the recent Balkans war to agitate to "Stop the Bombing"?

Chris Reynolds says not.

However much Milosevic's genocidal drive against the Kosovars was the greater evil, we could do nothing directly to stop that evil. Only if we effectively combatted the lesser evil which was within our reach to combat, the NATO bombing, could we put ourselves in a good position to aid Serb and Kosovar socialists and democrats who might stop Milosevic.

Workers' Liberty described what NATO was doing: "They throw bombs at the Serbs, most of whom don't know the scale of Serbia's slaughter and ethnic cleansing in Kosova. They do not... ally or seek to ally with either the Serbs or the Kosovar people... They deploy a crude and savage weapon, bombing, for the wrong political goals, at best the Balkan status quo... NATO went to war to force the Rambouillet "agreement" on the Serbian regime...Rambouillet was not primarily pro-Albanian. Rambouillet aimed to curb, stifle and frustrate Albanian nationalism... 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... We could not, did not, and do not positively support NATO" (WL55 and 56 editorials).

Why then leave it as a negative ("not support NATO")? Why not go for it full-throated? Down with NATO! Stop the bombing! The short answer is that such a focus on the "lesser evil" would not just leave the "greater evil" to be tackled later, but positively aid and consolidate that "greater evil". We had to support the Albanian Kosovars in their war against Serbia, and we could not let our hostility to the Albanian Kosovars' imperialist semi-allies overshadow that duty.

The basic conflict in the Balkans was between Serbian imperialism and Kosovar national rights. The conflict has existed for over a century. It intensified when Milosevic started his Serb-chauvinist drive in the late 1980s. During the war it became a conflict not just about the national rights of the Albanian Kosovars, but about their very existence as a people. We are for the Albanian Kosovars against the Serbian state.

Generally, over the last decade, the NATO powers have backed Serbia against the Albanian Kosovars, while urging Milosevic to be less brutal and inflammatory. As Albanian Kosovar resistance grew, they became alarmed and tried to push Milosevic into accepting the Rambouillet proposals. He refused. They bombed Serbia, initially believing Milosevic would concede after a few days or weeks, then kept bombing to avoid defeat and humiliation. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the fundamental conflict, the bombing helped the Albanian Kosovars. It put mounting pressure on the Serbian state. Its victory has enabled the Albanian Kosovars remaining in their country to survive, those who fled to return, and the Albanian Kosovar people to gain some political autonomy. And it has not led to any sort of conquest or colonial oppression of Serbia. It is scarcely conceivable that it will.

Agitational advantage and positive principles

We wanted the bombing stopped. We did not want it stopped at the cost of letting Milosevic have his way by completing the destruction of the Kosovar people. To "accept" that the Albanian Kosovars would be destroyed for agitational advantage would be to score a cheap point against one, subordinate and anomalous, phase of our ruling classes' policy - that attempt to coerce Milosevic - at the cost of whitewashing and supporting Serbian imperialism and devastation for an oppressed people. Slogans can summarise thought; adroit slogans cannot substitute for it. It would be opportunist, catchpenny, short-sighted, demagogic to throw ourselves into "stop the bombing" agitation at the expense of implying indifference to the fate of the Kosovars and thus undercutting the positive principles - consistent democracy and self-determination - which provide our basic intellectual weapons for indicting the whole course of big-power imperialist politics. Any working-class opposition built on such agitation would be intellectually corrupted, self-corrupting, unstable and unreliable.

Trotsky commented on Third Period Stalinist politics that revolutionary agitation based on false claims about the imminent collapse of capitalism, or demagogic equation of every bourgeois regime with "fascism", would have to pay for the apparently clear-cut and rousing character of its immediate slogans by longer-term disorientation and instability. He was right. Once activists, nourished on the idea that every bourgeois regime was "fascist", could no longer suppress what they always half-knew about the realities of fascism and bourgeois democracy, they easily lapsed into popular-frontist anti-fascism. Activists hyped up to "anti-imperialism" on the basis of ignoring or minimising the facts about the Albanian Kosovars and Serb imperialism will easily collapse into more conservative politics as soon as they register the realities in front of them.

We would say to Serbian workers angry against the NATO bombing: we oppose NATO - always have done. Our effort is to support the Albanian Kosovars, with such slogans as "arm the Albanian Kosovars, international working-class solidarity". We know that any substantial movement on that basis would face NATO as an enemy. We focus on building a positive socialist, working-class alternative to NATO, not on "stop the bombing" - without an alternative. That would be to leave the Albanian Kosovars - faced with the need for immediate answers against attemped genocide - in the lurch. Milosevic is your enemy too. Work with us for independence for Kosova, for the overthrow of Milosevic, for Serb-Albanian workers' unity against both NATO and Serb imperialism.

The NATO bombing did not stop massacres and forced evictions of the Kosovars. "Was anything positive or humanitarian ever desired by the NATO powers?" asks Boris Kagarlitsky. Of course not. NATO acted for its own reasons of power-politics. But, as WL55 pointed out, "NATO will not kill and disperse 90% of the population of Kosova. For the Kosovars, the immediate difference between NATO and Milosevic or death". That "side-effect" remains important even though NATO allowed many thousands of Kosovars to be killed, and even if - as is possible - NATO consciously calculated for that in their decision to bomb.

Idiotically, some socialists say that Kosova is now a "NATO colony", and that that is no better than being under Serbian rule. But NATO is there with the support of the Albanians in Kosova. If Serbia was there then fewer Albanian Kosovars would now be alive! There is a difference between foreign forces welcomed in, and foreign forces attempting genocide.

Combining the slogans?

Others proposed "Stop the bombings" not as an alternative but as a supplement to pro-Albanian Kosovar slogans. If the pro-Albanian Kosovar slogans ("Independence for Kosova", "Arm the Albanian Kosovars", etc.) could gain enough force to annul any implication in "stop the bombings" of "let Milosevic have his way", this stance had an obvious advantage, in agitational force against our own ruling classes, which is not to be sneered at. But could they in fact? For a certainty, they could not.

In Britain this school of though was best expressed in Socialist Outlook which blithely piled self-contradictory slogans on top of each other. A better and more serious response of this school was the Australian publication, Green Left Weekly. They carried some fine articles and polemics stating the case for the Albanian Kosovars. They righteously refused to join "peace" campaigns that would not support Kosova. But editorially GLW tied its arguments together by claiming that: "The real purpose for the US/NATO war block the Kosovar people's struggle for independence from Serbia" (GLW360). That is half-true. As we wrote in WL56, "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... NATO wanted to secure some tolerable conditions of national life for the Kosovars [not the Kosovars' rights, just some deal which might quiet them down] before Milosevic and the KLA set the Balkans alight". But once the war was well underway, the immediate result of NATO withdrawing would not have been to "unblock" the way for the KLA to sweep to victory against Serbia: it would and could only have been the destruction of the Albanian Kosovar people.

GLW was plainly influenced by the feeling that it was duty-bound to put anti-NATO slogans first. They reserved the condemnation "imperialist" for NATO, not for Serbia. They did not call for arming the Albanian Kosovars except in the small print and by implication.

At worst the combine-the-slogans schools of thought let their pro-Kosovar slogans drift to the small print. Their stance became a sort of mirror-image of WL's. We said we wanted Serbian imperialism defeated, and if that meant a boost to NATO it was undesirable - and opposed by us, to the best of our political weight - but secondary. They said that they wanted NATO defeated, and if that meant the crushing of the Kosovars it was undesirable - and opposed by them, to the best of their political weight - but secondary.

The fundamental problem with combine-the-slogans is that "stop the bombing" is an immediate, do-it-now slogan, whereas "arm the Kosovars" and "independence for Kosova" were visibly proposals on a longer timescale. They were slogans that pertained to different dimensions. The immediate relevant slogan - "stop the bombings", which in practice meant "give Milosevic a victory and a free hand in Kosova" - made nonsense of the longer-term slogans. Independence for what Kosova? There would be little left of Albanian Kosova if Milosevic were given a free hand - after successfully standing up to NATO.

What was required was an anti-NATO slogan on the same timescale. "Stop the bombing" would inevitably tend to overshadow pro-Albanian Kosovar slogans because it would seem more practical. It would inevitably drift into a stance of proposing to stop one evil - the NATO bombing - first, and then tackle the other, the repression of the Kosovars. The dilemma - that the sequence was impossible, since given a free hand, Serbia would crush the Albanian Kosovars - could only be escaped by the pretences of GLW: that the NATO bombing of Serbia and Serbian forces was really aimed at helping Serbia win against the KLA, or that "Stop the bombing" really meant "oppose the whole anti-Kosovar course of NATO policy over the last decade".

The fate of Serbia

What about the fact that NATO was blowing the Serbian economy to bits? Were socialists not obliged to campaign directly against that? The proper answer to this argument is not to object that some of the NATO bombing was to be positively supported. Obviously we would welcome it if a NATO bomb stopped a Serbian military unit about to destroy a Kosovar village. In the first place we do not know for sure whether there was even a single such clear-cut case. In the second place, the worst imperialist armies can do some positive things as incidentals in a military campaign. In the era of high imperialism, big-power interventions were often justified on grounds of protecting local minorities - and sometimes they did protect minorities, at the cost of enslaving the majority population. Some of the left-wing arguments for minimising the Kosova question in favour of NATOphobia seem to hark back to the polemics of the Marxist classics about such situations.

The proportions were entirely different. Kosova was no secondary minority question, but the central issue. Serbia is not enslaved. That political difference is what we have to get across, not the common fact of some big-power military actions doing good.

Did the NATO bombing of such-and-such bridge, or such-another road, save Kosovars by disrupting Milosevic's military machine, or, on the contrary, bring suffering to Serb workers and peasants without any benefit to the Kosovars? We did not know and probably will never know. NATO had no special, separable campaign against civilians. It had a campaign against the Serbian state which, for its own reasons, it conducted in ways certain to have wide destructive impact on Serbia's civilian population.

We expressed opposition to bombing Serbia's economy to bits by indicting NATO's whole political course - by striving to build a "third camp" of the working class and oppressed peoples to support the Albanian Kosovars and, of course, by calling for "Serbian troops out of Kosova", a measure which would have immediately stopped the bombing. "Stop the bombing" would be a sharper way of stating the case? Yes, but at too great a cost of implying that the damage to Serbia was a worse evil (demanding immediate, do-it-now solutions, however flawed) than the genocide of the Kosovars (which could wait for more perfect answers). And how exactly do you measure damage to property in Serbia against immediate mass killings in Kosova?

The bogey of imperialism

Wasn't the NATO intervention imperialist? And aren't we duty-bound to make opposition to imperialism our first priority? It was imperialist in the general sense. "NATO remained fundamentally concerned with securing stable conditions in the Balkans for the 'imperialism of free trade' and with asserting US power". But imperialism had many variants even at the time that Lenin wrote his famous pamphlet in 1916. It has had many more variants historically. Even when polemicising against the imperialist World War 1, Lenin felt obliged to write that under certain circumstances he would support imperialism (of the sort he then had in mind) against more reactionary forces.

Lenin wrote that if World War 1 were really about and only about driving the German invaders out of occupied Belgium, then socialists would support those Big Powers doing that. Of course it could not. Belgium was not the central issue - the point is that the plight of the Albanian Kosovars and the support you give was.

In Kosova, there was no question of supporting NATO imperialism, because the aid it gave to the Kosovars was only a secondary, unreliable and treacherous part of an overall conservative policy. Basically, however, for socialists now it should be as for Lenin. Opposition to imperialism is an element in the positive programme of working-class struggle, not an all-swallowing principle. And, with more of history to guide us than Lenin had available, we should understand that imperialism comes with differences. The imperialism of conquest and genocide is different from the imperialism of free trade. Our programmatic support for national self-determination clashes directly and frontally with the imperialism of conquest and genocide, but not directly with the imperialism of free trade.

To recognise that fact is not to weaken our battle against the dominant imperialism of free trade. It is to put that battle on a rational basis, and to avoid trashing the programme that arms us to mobilise against that dominant imperialism when it too goes for conquest and genocide - which its current dominant free-trade orientation does not at all exclude.

If it were truly the case that victory against Serbia strengthens NATO's, or the US's, world power enormously, and enables it to repress any popular rebellions against IMF or World Trade Organisation rules anywhere at will, then that would still not justify us in minimising the fate of the Kosovars - how can we prepare the workers' movement to combat future attempts by US imperialism to bully small nations, if we educate it now to disregard the fate of this small nation? - but it would change the balance of what we should say. In fact, when NATO blundered into war with Serbia as an unplanned and miscalculated offshoot of a generally pro-Serbian policy, it never got more than grudging support even from the US and British Establishment, and its sequels are almost certain to be difficult and embarrassing for NATO. It was not a glorious triumph for NATO. The whole episode has probably made it harder, not easier, for the US and British ruling classes to get political support for military intervention against liberation struggles. The only part of it which has increased the big powers' scope for conquest and repression in future is that a large section of the left has been agitating and polemicising in favour of neglecting or ignoring the rights of small nations.

The notion of imperialism as a fixed Greatest Evil, axiomatically identified with the big capitalist powers, comes not from Marxism but from Stalinism, and specifically from the reshaping of Lenin's ideas into a dogmatic system of "Leninism". In that system it was used to boost the Stalinist USSR as non-"imperialist". Also derived from Stalinised "Leninism" is the idea that Marxists must relate to forces at war either by being "defeatist" (positively desiring the defeat of that force) or by being "defencist" (promoting and aiding its victory). War is the continuation of politics by other means. Marxism knows many attitudes to bourgeois policies other than going all out to smash and thwart them at any cost, or contrariwise energetically promoting them and seeking to organise the workers as the leading force for those policies in place of the unreliable bourgeois. Our attitude to a war should be fundamentally a continuation of our attitude to the politics underlying the war.

When the Rambouillet treaty was formulated, giving limited autonomy to Kosova, socialists did not support it - we could not, since we champion self-determination for Kosova, not limited autonomy under Serbian sovereignty with the Kosova Liberation Army disarmed by NATO - nor did we shout: "Smash Rambouillet at all costs!" We recognised that Rambouillet autonomy would be an improvement for the Albanian Kosovars compared to unrestrained Serbian oppression, but criticised and proposed an alternative. Our stance in the war was a continuation of our stance over Rambouillet. And that is as it should have been.

Socialists are guided in all such questions by one stable, permanently operational objective and one over-riding political value - the nurturing, development and deepening of independent working class politics.

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