Workers' Liberty #62


The left during the Balkans war

By Sean Matgamna

"An individual, a group, a party or a class that is capable of 'objectively' picking its nose while it watches men drunk with blood, and incited from above, massacring defenceless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive."

LD Trotsky, February 1913 [On the Balkan Atrocities]

NATO's war to compel Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) to accept a dictated settlement between Serbia and the people of its internal colony, Kosova, started one year ago. During the war (March to June 1999) much of the British left supported Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, on the grounds that it was being attacked by "imperialism" and must be "defended". Most of those leftists who did not support Yugoslavia, supported NATO, on the ground that only NATO could stop Yugoslav genocide against the Kosovar Albanians (over 90% of the people there).

Thus the left disintegrated into supporters of one or other of the warring camps.

Workers' Liberty backed, while agreeing with the pro-NATO camp that the fate of the Kosovars was the issue in the war, and that the defeat of Milosevic - even by NATO - was desirable, and while agreeing with the pro-Milosevicites that NATO is a reactionary and militaristic monstrosity, neither Yugoslavia nor NATO. We refused to choose either NATO or Milosevic as a lesser evil that deserved to be backed politically by working-class socialists. We focused on such slogans as "Yugoslav Army out of Kosova; Arm the KLA (Kosova Liberation Army); No Trust in NATO Bombs or Troops; Independence for Kosova". We refused to go along with the left-organised pro-Milosevic "anti-war" movement.

One year on, the pro-Milosevicite vicarious Serb chauvinists have, to judge by the April issue of the SWP magazine, Socialist Review, learned nothing.

In Socialist Review, the academic thug Alex Callinicos (York University Professor of Politics) is still fantasising and lying about what happened and why, just as he did during the war. Who was responsible for the Serb expulsion of over half of Kosova's people? NATO, of course! Look at the way the Albanians now behave towards the Serb minority in Kosova! It would be better if maybe 20 times as many Albanians had been driven out or killed? The KLA is vicious and chauvinist! Therefore? The Albanian 90% of Kosova's people lose their collective rights? And so on. This is spluttering gibberish, not any sort of serious politics, least of all Marxist politics.

The collapse of the left during the Balkan War into on one side, vicarious Serb, anti-Albanian chauvinism sustained by blatant lies and misrepresentation and, on the other, into political prostration before NATO was a major event in our recent history. Here, in an extract from a forthcoming book, In An Age of Barbarism, Sean Matgamna analyses the issues involved.


On the evening of Wednesday 24 March 1999, NATO launched the first of what would be 11 weeks of continuous bombing of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). What was NATO's political objective?

The big bourgeoisie's policy in Europe in the last half-century has been to unite Europe on a basis of formal equality between its component parts. Europe is more united now than for 1,500 years. The European Union is expanding eastwards. It wants stability on its south-eastern borders. Of course the capitalists who rule Europe want to exploit the Balkans! Their central quarrel with Serbia was that the great de-stabilising force in the region throughout the '90s was Serb chauvinism, fostered by the Serb state (Yugoslavia). NATO's objective when it started bombing Serbia was to force the Serb government to accept the "solution" worked out by the big powers (and imposed on the Kosovar Albanians) at Rambouillet, and, incidentally, to stop the Serb chauvinist drive against ethnic Albanians (more than 90% of the people) in Serbia's colony, Kosova. In the previous 11 months, as guerrilla war for Kosovan liberation erupted, perhaps a quarter of a million Albanians had been uprooted by the Yugoslav (Serbian) army and its paramilitary auxiliaries. By way of a big-power police action, NATO wanted to prevent the Balkans being further destabilised by the escalating Serb-Albanian war in Kosova.

Rambouillet proposed that Kosovar autonomy within the Yugoslav state should be restored. Kosova, whatever its people wanted, would remain in the Serbian state. It would have Serbian police to maintain "security" and Serbian soldiers controlling its borders. The Albanian Kosova Liberation Army would be disarmed.

Immediately the bombing started, there was an enormous escalation of the Serb drive against the Albanian Kosovars. The Serb-state leader, Slobodan Milosevic, it seems, thought that the bombing was a mere gesture, that it would not last more than a week or two. The bombing was not the cause of, but adroitly seized-upon a cover for, an already decided and prepared attempt at a genocidal - "drive them out" - solution to Serbia's "Kosova problem". With demonic energy Serbian ethnic cleansers attacked Kosova's Albanians, killing, burning, raping and forcing them out of their homes at gunpoint. Within a week, more than half of Kosova's two million ethnic Albanians had been uprooted and many killed. In Kosova's capital, 200,000 people were driven out at gunpoint; Pristina became a ghost town.

The self-designated "humanitarians" of NATO expected, it seems, that Milosevic would cave in after a few days' or a couple of weeks' bombing, as he had in Bosnia in 1995. Maybe they allowed for a certain amount of intensified massacre, reflecting that it would help make the Kosovars more pliant. They had no contingency plan for Milosevic holding out as long as he did. Everything NATO did suggested incoherence, blundering and political and military incompetence.

Alchemists, witch doctors, amateurs of world government, NATO deployed a crude and savage weapon against the Serbian people, most of whom did not know the scale of Serbia's slaughter and ethnic cleansing in Kosova. It threw bombs at Serbia from a safe distance, high in the sky, while the carnage in Kosova escalated. Their talk about saving the Kosovar Albanians came to seem like cynical mockery of those inclined to take what they said at face value.

Committed by Rambouillet to continued Yugoslavian rule in Kosova, NATO was, at the start of this war, potentially a future partner of Milosevic - if Milosevic had capitulated after a few days or a week - in a deal at the Albanians' expense. Only Milosevic's obstinacy created an outcome where Serbian sovereignty over Kosova has become entirely notional, and Kosova Serbs are being driven out by Albanian chauvinists. Even now, Kosova is not independent, but NATO-ruled - and likely to remain that way long after the Kosovars want NATO to go.


When NATO bombs were raining on Serbia, it was necessary to characterise NATO for what it was, and to refuse to give it political credence, political confidence or political support. But was NATO the main or only enemy. For the people of Kosova the immediate difference between NATO and Milosevic was the difference between autonomy (even in a truncated or NATO-ruled Kosova) and being killed or driven out of their homeland. Between NATO and Milosevic, the difference was one of life and death - death for an unknowable number of persons and for the Kosovar ethnic Albanian people as an entity with a homeland of their own. For over 90% of the people of Kosova that was no small difference.

But the early bombs gave no direct protection to the Albanians? No, but to assert that sustained NATO bombing of Serbia could not affect what happened in Kosova was evident nonsense. The question was whether, by the time bombing took effect, there would be any Albanians left in Kosova.

Once the NATO-Yugoslavia (Serbia) war and the enormous escalation of Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosova had been started, for the people of Kosova only one of two things was possible. Either NATO would impose its will on Milosevic and force the Serbian government to withdraw its army from Kosova. Or, NATO would give up and leave Milosevic, immensely strengthened by his victory over NATO, with a more or less free hand to go on killing and "ethnic cleansing" the Albanians of Kosova.

Those were the only possibilities in the situation. The realities of this situation defined for socialists and democrats, and even for decent liberals, what was paramount in it: the fate of the people of Kosova. Of course, had the Kosovar Albanians been a mere excuse, for example, for an attempt to subjugate the Serbian people, that might not have been so clear cut. But nothing like that was involved. NATO is NATO and it has world-wide concerns, very few of them benign or "humanitarian" - but here for big capitalist reasons it was engaging in a limited police action on the European Union's borders to force Milosevic to desist in Kosova and accept some degree of self-rule for Serbia's long-oppressed internal colony.

A socialist answer? The socialist programme - unity of Serb and Albanian workers to achieve a democratic solution to the conflict - presupposed vast political changes in the attitude of the Serb workers. It was no answer to the immediate short-term threat of destruction facing over 90% of Kosova's people. International socialism disposed of no forces here, where there would be either a short term rescue of the Kosovars from their plight, or there would be none.


For the left this was an unusually complex and difficult situation: attempted genocide in Kosova as NATO rained bombs on targets in Yugoslavia (Serbia); bombing "on behalf of" the ethnic Albanians that gave them no protection from the uprooting, burning, raping and murdering Serb forces of occupation in Serbia's internal colony; nothing but NATO's relentless airborne destruction raining down on Serbia to stop the complete and final "cleansing" of the Albanians from Kosova; other than NATO, no hope at all that those driven over the borders or into the high hills would ever return - these were the elements (with the characters in our traditional political theatre in part breaking loose from the stereotypes) of the complex situation which in the 11 weeks of war plunged the left into the greatest moral and political crisis which it has experienced for decades.

This was a situation to which no-one could rely on old reflexes. There was no "anti-imperialist" political painting-by-numbers kit to help you work out a coherent policy here. The issues had to be thought through concretely, the facts and possibilities related to socialist and democratic first principles and priorities.

For socialists who did not want to settle into the eternal semi-sleep of those sectarians who stand aside from politics and limit their activity to the preaching of "Marxist" general historical truths and grand abstractions, thereby turning Marxism from a guide to action into an outside-it-all critical moral philosophy - for these political socialists, in this situation there were only two rational responses. Each roughly corresponded to the division between reform and revolutionary socialists. One was to actively support NATO. The other was to maintain political distance and political independence from NATO, keeping in mind what NATO is, without being blinded by that as to what was really going on in the Balkans and who was playing what role there. These, on the facts, were, I repeat, the only rational working class socialist responses.

But from the beginning most of the British left threw themselves into a frantic effort to whip up an "anti-war" movement under the sole slogan "Stop the war, stop the bombing". A few days after 24 March, a large gathering at the Friends' Meeting House on Euston Road in London set the tone that would last for the duration of the war. No "anti-war" speaker said that Serbia was waging a would-be genocidal war on the Albanian Kosovars, nobody said anything about them or their rights - in the first place, their right to live. A radically false picture of what was happening in the Balkans was presented. Alex Callinicos blamed NATO for Milosevic's drive against the Albanian Kosovars! (Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, therefore Britain was to blame for the Holocaust?) The Catholic ex-Bishop Bruce Kent dismissed Defence Minister George Robertson, in the tone of a bourgeois snob discussing a chimney sweep, as "that dread-ful li-tt-le man" - to applause from this left-wing audience! That same evening, at an anti-war demonstration in Glasgow, SWPers chanted "NATO out of Kosova!" NATO out... At no point in the whole war did the "peace campaign" call for the Yugoslavian/Serbian army to get out of Kosova. At "anti war" meetings all over the country they bitterly opposed the demand. The only job of socialists was to oppose NATO. The politics of the mad house!

It was right and necessary to preach distrust of NATO; to remember that NATO had backed Serbia keeping a grip on Kosova since the current Yugoslav crisis started in 1988, and in the 1995 Dayton Agreement; to remember that NATO had maintained an arms embargo to stop the Bosniacs defending themselves against Serb "ethnic cleansing"; to recall how murderous the UN "safe havens" in Bosnia proved for the Bosniacs; to warn that NATO, with its hypocritical, big-power double-standards and pursuit of self-interest, might rat on the Kosovars now too; that NATO had been consistently against Kosovar self-determination. No trust in NATO, bombs or troops!

But the idea was preposterous that the greatest crime - indeed, the only issue - was NATO bombing, and not the mass murder and expulsions being inflicted on the ethnic Albanians by the Serb state and its Kosova-Serb accomplices. When in the first days of the war more than half the Kosovars had already been uprooted and driven out, to "forget" about that was a political crime.

How was it possible for those whose instincts and anti-imperialist principles generated in them a strong desire to oppose NATO, to oppose what NATO was trying to do in Kosova where, if NATO now cried off, the Kosovar Albanian entity would be eliminated in days or weeks? By almost entirely ignoring (apart from "the bombing") or blatantly lying about, both the basic politics of the war and what was happening in Kosova. By myopically focussing on "who" - NATO - and ignoring "what" - an attempt at Serb ethnic-imperialist genocide on one side and a NATO police action on the other. The fetish of "anti-imperialism" combined with refusal to face up to the real situation in the Balkans, and indifference - at best - to the fate of the Kosovars, would for the "anti-imperialist" left produce a terrible set of political conclusions.

Of course for Marxists it is not only "what", but, and fundamentally, also "whom": yet it can never only be a question of who and whom. For generations the Stalinist and official Trotskyist left has had such an approach, in both its negative and positive varieties: positively supporting or silently tolerating and making excuses for Stalinist, Khomenite and other horrors because of "who" their perpetrators were thought to be - a "workers' state", an anti-imperialist state - and what in history they supposedly represented; negatively opposing and self-blindingly demonising the enemies of the "good side" even when on the face of it they were less repellent than the predesignated "progressive side". The category of "what" too is essential, if we are to avoid an unbridled subjectivism and the politics of delusion and wishful thinking that have so often misled sections of the left.


In all the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, Serbia had operated by the export of people; not by the seizure of colonies and peoples for exploitation but by the seizure of territory to be cleared of its population and "planted" with Serbs. That had been the guiding idea of Belgrade policy in Kosova in 1912-13, in the 1920s and 30s, and in the mid 1950s, though for various reasons they never managed to carry it through to completion. Imperialism in history is not just monopoly capitalism or Stalinist bureaucratic imperialism. History knows many different forms of imperialism. Serbia has behaved as a primitive ethno-imperialism akin to the tribal imperialism of the Dark Ages - and to the general pattern of Russian imperialism in the 19th century and up to 1917.

To shout "Stop the war - stop the bombing" could, in the circumstances, mean stop only one part of the war and let Milosevic intensify the Serb war on the Albanian Kosovars. Milosevic refusal to stop that war and give Kosova autonomy was the cause of NATO's war. Milosevic could have ended NATO bombing at any time - as he finally did.

"Stop the war - stop the bombing" could not but be only a demand that NATO stop attempting to coerce Milosevic. To concentrate on opposing NATO's war and NATO's bombing tactics, was, and could not but be, to side with Milosevic on the issue in dispute between Serbia and NATO - Kosova - and therefore to side against the people of Serbia's colony, and with Serbian ethnic imperialism in the name of opposition to NATO. It was to make oneself advocate, herald and propagandist outrider for a Serb ethnic triumph in Kosova.

Even if NATO is classified as imperialist and Serbia as non-imperialist (or even as "socialist"!) in what way was Serbia in relation to Kosova not worse than NATO and the societies whose instrument NATO was? In the name of exactly what alternative should, or could, NATO's actions be denounced and opposed?

From the pacifist position that war is never justified? But Marxists consider pacifism a treacherous delusion. Some wars are justified. Some wars are progressive. We wage war and in certain circumstances we advocate war (for example, we advocated a war of national defence and liberation in China after 1931).

Because NATO is part of the armature of the world-class predators who starve the Third World - a military alliance of rich countries who bleed the peoples of the poor countries - therefore it could have no moral right to stop Serbia's attempt at genocide in Kosova? Nobody but the Kosovar Albanians had a right to take such a position.

Because NATO operates blatantly hypocritical double standards in such matters, for example condoning NATO member Turkey's terrible persecutions of the Kurds? So we call on them to be consistent hypocrites? All or nothing - if they don't stop Turkey butchering Kurds, they have no right to stop Milosevic?

Because, really, Kosova was not the issue? But there was no other issue in the war! The issue was Serbia's policy in Kosova and, during the war - a war that Serbia's rulers could have ended by agreeing to take their army out of their Kosova colony - its escalated attempt at genocide there.


Let us try systematically to categorise the left's responses to the realities of the war in the Balkans. The responses fell into three broad categories. Each of these had sub-divisions and there was some overlapping between elements within the categories.

  1. Those who said that Serbia was on no level faced with subjugation or the loss of any of the rights it was entitled to claim for itself, and, therefore, that the central question in the NATO-Serbia war was Kosova. This broad group sub-divided into:

    1. Those who supported NATO's bombing.

    2. Those who also wanted NATO troops sent to fight their way in, to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosova.

    3. Those (Red Pepper) who wanted an immediate stop to bombing, and NATO ground troops instead.

    4. Those revolutionary socialists (Workers' Liberty) who recognising the realities in Kosova, and, wishing for the defeat of the Serbian state in Kosova, nonetheless refused to endorse or take responsibility for NATO, or express any degree of confidence in it or its component states. NATO would act, or not, in line with the interests of the ruling classes of NATO's states. Calls for NATO to pursue this or that tactic had no power to affect what happened and could only disorient those socialists adopting such an approach and those who listened to them. We argued for independent, working-class politics - in the first place, by assessment and criticism of both NATO and Milosevic.

    The first three sub-groups were essentially the camp of (the better) reform socialists. Their difference on this point with the (Third Camp) revolutionary socialists who also saw not NATO or imperialism in general but Kosova as the central issue, was one expression of the different attitudes of revolutionaries and reformists to the state. To one, it is a class state which, even when - for its own reasons and with its own methods - it does something desirable, is not our state; to the other, it is something above classes that, with enough pressure, can be influenced to do what people of good will want.

  2. Those who said that the central question was "NATO imperialism", "the war" and "the bombing". These came together to form the campaign to "Stop the War" - NATO's war. In effect, this was an actively - and in the main a deliberately - pro-Serb movement. Its organisers worked to ensure that it was, by rigorously voting down proposals at their "anti-war" meetings to add to their programme demands for the withdrawal of the Serb army from Kosova. Their street protests against the war included raucous contingents of Serb chauvinists (who, in fact, always formed a big proportion of the demonstrators). In the good old anti-Vietnam War days of the '60s and '70s, when we shouted "Victory to the Vietnamese NLF", and many chanted "Ho, Ho, Ho-Chi Minh, we will fight and we will win" (while some of us responded, "Ho, Ho, Ho-Chi Minh, how many Trots did you do in?"), they would have gloried in the slogan "Victory to Serbia" and maybe chanted appropriate ditties: "Ho, Ho, Milosevic, love that murd'rin' son-of-a-bitch!".

    Many points of view merged to make up this pro-Serb state, anti-war movement, combining and overlapping to reinforce each other.

    The distinct elements in the coalition were, broadly:

    1. Pacifism - war is never justified. The ignominious conclusion was: leave the Kosovars to their fate. Faced with two inextricably connected wars, NATO's on Milosevic and Milosevic's on the Albanian Kosovars, they chose to see only one. They had an urge to minimise the horror of Serbia's attempted genocide. They could not but, in the circumstances, end up to one degree or another as Serbia's apologists. Their 'anti-war' effort was one of Serbia's military assets.

    2. Stalinist and quasi-Stalinist attitudes. Milosevic's Socialist Party is the old Stalinist party. This point of view drew on old, hungering reflexes and instincts of loyalty to the vanished USSR and its empire: the Kosovars challenging the unity of the Yugoslav (Serbian) still "progressive" state deserved to be dealt with as harshly as necessary. This was a hard, blinkered, unteachable pro-Serbia element. Their paper, the Morning Star reported the conflict from a Serbian-chauvinist, anti-Albanian, Milosevicite point of view.

      All those in category ii were old, uncritical or critical, supporters of the USSR bloc, acting on "defencist" reflexes after what they used to "defend" in the Stalinist bloc is long gone.

    3. Biodegraded post-Trotsky "Trotskyist" anti-imperialists, "defencist" of Yugoslavia. The New Left Review, which is run by Mandelites and quasi-Mandelites predisposed to side with "progressive" Serbia, and some of them inclined to relive the anti-Vietnam war agitation of 30 years ago, provided "theoretical" reasons for refusing to define the conflict as one centrally involving the fate of the Kosovars. Readers were taken up above the world to somewhere out in the political stratosphere and initiated into the secret knowledge of what was "really" going on among the component parts of NATO. Cloudy speculative stuff, designed to prove that Kosova was not the issue and to justify siding with Serbia: and even if every detail were correct the political conclusions would not follow. Kosova was the issue.

    4. Anti-Americanism. Socialists have no reason to give credence to the pretensions of the US to be the world's cop. But the anti-Americanism tapped into by the "peace campaign" is an old stagnant pool left behind by the Stalinist flood-tide. Oddly, since the main enemy was supposed to be "at home", the dominant trend of the anti-war campaign was far more anti-American than it was anti-British government. There was also some anti-Germanism, overlapping with Little Englandism and hostility to European unity. Tony Benn especially embodied this viewpoint. They mixed reminiscences of World War Two with resentment of Germany's renewal and its present position in the European Union.

    5. Purely negative "anti-imperialism". "Imperialism" inheres in advanced capitalism and, therefore, in NATO, irrespective of its policy and its actions and no matter what the policy and activity of its opponent may be. What was NATO's goal in the Balkans? Stability, so that capital can be safe there. If, in pursuit of that, they stop, or even limit, the slaughter and uprooting of the Albanian Kosovars, who, except native or adoptive Serb chauvinists, would not be glad of it? Saying that did not involve forgetting what NATO is, or demand of socialists that they preach trust in NATO or in the capitalist states enrolled in NATO.

      In the war in the Balkans the anti-imperialist left were the victims of the (two) campist delusion that the only possible positive conclusion from opposition on principle to NATO was to side with Serbian ethnic imperialism in Kosova. The truly imperialist element in NATO's attitude to the Kosovars, if it were to come out in an attempt to enforce a deal with Milosevic at the expense of the Kosovars, would logically have the support of these "anti-imperialists". For 11 weeks, their paper, Socialist Worker vied with the Stalinist Morning Star for the role of the most shameless most dishonest and least inhibited pro-Milosevic war-propaganda sheet.

    6. Incoherently expressed negativism towards advanced capitalism - no matter what the alternative. This was central to the "first and foremost anti-imperialist" left. It was not anti-imperialism but a pre-Marx attitude to capitalism - a latter day approximation to the politics of those whom Marx and Engels once called reactionary socialists: people so repelled by capitalism that they looked to reactionary and regressive pre-capitalist "alternatives." In terms of the history of socialism, it was a prehistoric, pre-Communist Manifesto anti-capitalist sectarianism that in practice led to support of Dark Ages Serbian ethnic imperialism.

      A few months later, the self-same people were, and rightly, passionate supporters of the East Timorese when they faced the formidable threat of being "cleansed" out.

      Key to this idea, basic in SWP and other neo-Trotskyist thinking, is that capitalism now cannot be progressive. In various forms, this idea has been a cancer eating at and politically rotting post-Trotsky-Trotskyism. There is a particle of truth here - drowned in confusion and hysterical half-truth and quarter-truth. Insofar as socialism is objectively possible, and measured against that, capitalism is utterly reactionary. But capitalism possesses the world; it has not stopped developing and not everything it does is reactionary or regressive. It has generated tremendous new technologies, it has produced and educated vast working classes and great new cities. In its own exploitative, bureaucratic way it has more or less united Europe. We do not politically support the capitalist politicians in this "progressive" work of capital; but we do not cry out to stop it either. We defend the working class and oppressed peoples within capitalist development. Nor, categorising it as imperialism, do we side against it with its more reactionary opponents.

      To think - because in comparison to the socialism that might be capitalism is reactionary - that therefore socialists take up an attitude of abstention and negativism towards all its aspects is to follow in the track of the utopian socialists like Robert Owen. They believed that humanity had only been waiting for their own socialist revelation, and that now all that was needed was to counterpose their ideas to capitalism. They had no idea of historical development, of building up a working class movement within capitalist development. That approach was one of the contributions of Marxism.

    7. Insular indifference to the fate of the Kosovars. This was common to, and a serious part of, all the other strands.

    All these elements and more were in the SWP pamphlet, Stop the War, a classic of its kind. (Unsigned, it was reputed to be the work of the York University academic, Alex Callinicos.) It is full of misrepresentation of reality, of lies of omission and lies by arranging facts so as to prevent the reader putting them in their proper relationship to each other, it hides the important things in the clutter. It minimised the enormity of Serbia's drive against the Kosovars, presenting such things as everyday affairs in the world, rooting and building the SWP's own hypocrisy now on the foundations of the habitual hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, while, of course, denouncing it - in the circumstances, hypocritically. It quibbled pedantically: is this "genocide"? It shouted down straw men, piously insisting that this was not another Holocaust or Milosevic another Hitler.

    They used detailed comparisons of Hitler's factory-organised slaughter with Milosevic in Kosova in a way that could only be intended to minimise what was happening in Kosova and "exonerate" Milosevic. A piece of work in the Stalinist tradition - the sort of thing George Orwell analysed in "Politics and the English Language" - this anti-war, pro-Milosevic campaign seems to have been somebody's brainstorm, based on the delusion that, with pamphlets like this, and Socialist Worker's Sun-level coverage of the war, they could lie a big anti-war movement into existence.

  3. Thirdly, there was, so to speak, an "oxymoron tendency", which sought refuge from the dilemmas outlined above by hiding them in an incoherent pastiche of the contradictory stances of the first two categories. In contrast to the British SWP they could not bring themselves to back Milosevic against the Kosovars just because NATO was against him; but neither could they bring themselves to do other than denounce NATO and what it was doing, because of what NATO in general is: so they wound up giving support, but shame-faced support, to Milosevic.

    They too raised the slogans of the Hands-Off-Milosevic peace campaign - "Stop the Bombing", "Stop the War" - combined with "Self-Determination for Kosova". This combination of two positions might in other circumstance have made sense as long-term propaganda. Here that was impossible. For the Kosovar Albanians there would be no long term, if Milosevic was not stopped soon. The two slogans and the contradictory political impulses behind them, so easily combined on patient paper, flatly contradicted and cancelled each other out in reality. "Stop the Bombing" was an immediate demand on a defined agency, NATO; the anti-war agitation was an immediate force in the war - on Milosevic's side - agitating for what could not but mean give Milosevic a free hand in Kosova. One slogan - the immediately applicable, specifically focused one - in practice would have led to the destruction of the people whose right to self-determination was championed in the other slogan. This "solution" to the difficulties by jumbling and juggling mutually exclusive slogans could satisfy only those who either did not want to, or simply could not, think it through. (See, for example, the ridiculous articles by Alan Thornett in Socialist Outlook.) Nor could horror at the typically NATOist tactics - bombing - justify such a Pontius Pilate approach to the Kosovar Albanians. Marxists do not judge wars by military technology or tactics but by a political assessment of the political aims being pursued in the war - here, fundamentally, an assessment of what both NATO and Milosevic were doing.

    In Britain, the "oxymoron tendency" consisted of a number of groups with little presence and small influence. They half-saw the dilemmas and the alternatives but refused to choose. Saying everything, they had nothing specific to say except hands off Milosevic - "Stop the War, Stop the Bombing".

    In Europe and the USA this approach had substantial support. In France, an enormous demonstration combining Lutte Ouvriere, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and others, marched behind Arlette Laguiller, Alain Krivine and a banner with three slogans: 1) Stop the Bombing, 2) Down with Milosevic, 3) Self-determination for Kosova. Essentially this was a half-ashamed version of the immediate politics of Britain's vicarious Serb patriots. Only "Stop the Bombing" was immediate, concrete, specific. About Kosova there was nothing specific - "Serb army out of Kosova", for example, the equivalent of "Stop the Bombing". This was an evasive fudge: strictly speaking, a centrist fudge.

    In the second and third categories were to be found the big bulk of those - SWPers, official "Trotskyists", various types of neo-Stalinists - who call themselves Marxists and revolutionary socialists.

    In the USA, "Against the Current" took a similar approach, unable to refrain from focusing on NATO tactics, and thus getting themselves very politically lost.

In the mainly reform subgroups i and ii of the first category, individual revolutionary socialists were also to be found. They at least had the merit of thinking about the real issues and responding rationally as politically and morally serious people to the issues in the conflict.


The pro-NATO elements of the left were animated by a praiseworthy urge to face the realities of the situation, and by refusal to be irresponsible towards the Kosovar Albanians. Nonetheless, they gutted themselves of political independence in order that they could engage in an empty exercise in anticipatory mimicry. Their incantations and advice to NATO - "send ground troops in now" - were as inconsequential to the Kosovar Albanians and to what NATO for its own reasons did and did not do, as is the witch-doctor dressing up in green to promote the coming of spring.

The idea that by, for example, calling for ground troops to protect the Albanians we could tell the great capitalist powers to act as we socialists would act in Serbia and Kosova, or anywhere else, is the idea that bourgeois regimes can substitute for the working class and, further and more fantastic still, that we can by "public opinion" force them to, and control what they do, and how they do it.

The concept of "critical support" - essential for Marxists in relating to workers' struggles and working-class organisations, national liberation movements, and democratic battles under bad or treacherous leadership - made no sense in relation to NATO. Working-class socialists could not conceivably "intervene" in NATO's war to push its democratic element further and vie for leadership. In any "critical support", the "criticism" was without grip and the politically self-disarming "support" everything. It was an impulse of mystical self-protestation and political self-disavowal, in the superstitious hope that NATO could thereby be made a reliable surrogate for the socialist forces that, for now, do not exist in the Balkans. It could only cut against the central task of working-class socialists - building a politically independent "Third Camp" of the working class and oppressed peoples.

It was a fantasy of directing affairs, rooted in the real weakness of the left and, politically, of the working class. The psychology that calls on the capitalist powers to do what we are too weak to do is the same psychology that in different times and circumstances led so many post-Trotsky Trotskyists to develop delusions in the Stalinist parties and bureaucratic states.

Watching the agony of the Kosovars - or the East Timorese - naturally produces in decent people the urge to shout out "instructions" to the rulers: essentially it is an ineffective cry of protest and, subconsciously, a belief in word magic. It is like the shouts of the mother who from a distance helplessly watches her child stepping out in front of a speeding car. It is a call for saviours from on high. Its only effect is to express our real weakness and add to it a political confusion - about what the role of socialists must be and what revolutionary socialist politics is - that will forever keep us weak.

Anti-NATO pro-Serbs were the mirror twins of those who called on NATO to act for them - two sides of the same coin. Both represented aspects of the disintegration of socialism and of the lack of an independent, working class outlook. Socialists have to work to recreate and rebuild a working class socialism against both these currents. We won't do it by calling on NATO - no more than in the past 'calling on' Stalinist formations - to do what we as yet are too weak to do.


Some have argued that the position Workers' Liberty developed from the analysis that the fate of the people of Kosova was the central issue in the war was really a "lesser evilist" support for NATO, stopping short only of explicit political support. The decisive question here is whether our assessment of what was happening, and why was right or wrong. The rest is malice or misunderstanding.

Are Marxists not allowed to assess reality and say what we think is the best outcome in a given situation? Does making and expressing that assessment mean we thereby, by that act, give political "support" to the agency which can secure the lesser evil, and "take political responsibility" for it?

But that would rule out all real analysis of the quantitative and qualitative gradations in the Balkan or any other reality, and confine the political work of Marxists to reiterating pre-fabricated dogmatic abstractions and generalities about, in this case, NATO and imperialism. Or should we analyse a given political-military situation but talk about it only in private?

But more or less all - or all public - political conclusions would then be fixed in advance, everything immediate, concrete, specific ruled out, all configurations of current events beyond our ken. Analysis of gradations in reality would at best be an esoteric activity whose conclusions must always be kept private in deference to the pre-set "epochal" generalities and characterisations

That is the approach that for 60 years has rendered the kitsch Trotskyist press habitually more stupid than the serious bourgeois press and sometimes downright mad. My conclusions are already drawn up; details don't matter; concrete reality doesn't matter. Lenin, who used to insist that "the truth is always concrete", knew better.

Political "lesser-evilism" is something other than assessing grades and qualities in reality and publicly identifying the lesser evils. To adopt lesser-evilism is to limit and confine ourselves, and what we advocate, to the lesser-evil options available under the existing order and the present rulers at a given moment. It is to subordinate the prime socialist task of working to transcend the present system and its limitations, to the immediate politics of those who are looked to as providing the best currently available option. It is to adopt as ours the lesser evil within the existing system - and thereby politically to make peace with that system, draining away that intransigence against the whole capitalist entity which is the sine qua non of revolutionary socialist politics. It is to cut down and abandon our own identity and our own long-term perspectives. It is to merge our political identity with that of those within the present ruling circles who represent the "lesser-evil" option.

The revolutionary socialist project, root and branch anti-capitalism, would thereby turn into its opposite: a liberal movement for a better capitalism. Why? Political "lesser-evilism" could not but infect those we should educate in intransigence towards the ruling class with conciliatory attitudes towards some of them and confidence in them when they are - as inevitably they sometimes do - for their own reasons, and in their own way, doing something which for now is a lesser evil than the available bourgeois alternative. With such an approach we could only ruin our own ability to act as an autonomous force trying to shape the future, even if, for now, we can only make independent socialist propaganda.

Yes, to achieve anything at all, working-class socialists must build on and preach hostility to and intransigence towards, all factions of the ruling class. But within that intransigent opposition, we examine the issues honestly and concretely. We tell the truth to the working class, including the truth of complex things like the Balkan War. We cannot preach independent socialist politics to intelligent people except on the basis of an honest assessment of reality. We cannot do it by requiring people to close their eyes to options and alternatives within bourgeois-dominated political and military reality now. The case for fundamental "Third Camp" intransigence against the NATO powers even when they are trying to stop genocide in Kosova is not to pretend that the bourgeois powers acting to stop genocide - because they fear major destabilisation of the region - are intrinsically so evil that even a Milosevicite primitive Serb imperialist state attempting genocide on the Kosovars is compared with them the lesser evil. We should not require those whom we try to convince of socialist ideas to close their eyes to reality. Otherwise, exposure to the facts will inevitably sober them and "unconvince" them and send them back to the camp of the bourgeoisie, forswearing all future "dogmatism". If these are the only possibilities such a conclusion would be the correct one.


To sum up, both the backers of NATO who called for ground troops to protect the Albanian Kosovars and the anti-war (anti-NATO's war) pro-Serbian left chose political "lesser evilism". Both acted as if they had never heard of the idea that socialists must work to develop the working class as an independent political force and in the first place, to make the left itself consistently independent.

Independence consists first of all in making an independent socialist analysis and judgement. But if you start out with the belief that you must negate, invert, your own ruling class policy, turn their policy inside out, support its opposite, give aid and comfort to its enemies - to a Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein - and make propaganda in defence of them because they are our ruling class's enemies, no matter what they are or what they do - then you can't honestly appraise the issues. You let the ruling class determine your operational view of reality. To relate to the real world of political and military affairs only negatively is not to relate to it rationally or independently. Socialist politics is not only a negation of the policy of the capitalists. It is a positive programme, or it is a delusion.

In wars, Marxists never line up according to who fired the first shot, who is "the aggressor" and so on, or on essentially pacifist grounds that shooting, bombing or whatever are inhuman. We work from a political analysis of the real issues in the war, on the politics of which a given war is the continuation and military expression.

If what so much of the left did last year was 'anti-imperialism', it was grotesquely selective anti-imperialism. If it was a protest against the general horrors of war, again it was grotesquely selective, because of the 'anti-war' camp's silence about the greatest horrors of the war - the war by the Serb army and Serb paramilitaries against the entire Albanian population of Kosova. Selective anti-imperialism, selective pacifism, is neither anti-imperialist nor honest pacifism. It is no sort of socialist politics.

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