Issue 69 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1995 Copyright International Socialism

The left and the Balkan war


The war in Bosnia has been the sharpest European expression of the disintegration of certainties in the post Cold War era. And, just as in 1914, much of the left has failed to rise above the madness of war.

By 1995 many had swung round to view the situation in Bosnia as a mess in which there can be no certain allies, but in years past there has been nothing approaching such agnosticism. By turns the now nationalist leaders of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia have been held up as the saviours of civilisation in the Balkans.

Moreover, the Balkan crisis has led many veteran opponents of imperialism to call for Western firepower to be trained on the Serbians. In the United States, Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky have all called for more aggressive US intervention,1 while in Britain Chris Mullin, the former Tribune editor, said, 'It is, unhappily, a fact of life that only a credible force, military force on the ground, not bombing, is going to make any difference.' Ken Livingstone called for troops to go in--as many as it takes and for as long as it takes'.2 The 'inveterate peacemonger', former Labour leader Michael Foot, has also been prominent in campaigning for more Western involvement in the war.

The exclusive demonisation of the Serbs and illusions in the civilising influence of Western firepower have set the tone of debate for the last four years. However, the roots of this confusion lie further back. The post-war state in Yugoslavia acted as a pole of attraction for much of the left repelled by the horrors of Stalin's Russia, yet unready to make its peace with the West. The orthodox Trotskyist Fourth International journal declared, 'The Russian Revolution was the springboard from which the Third International took its historic flight. The Yugoslav revolution can become the springboard from which the Fourth will launch itself on its conquest of the masses'.3 More recently Branka Magas claimed, 'The legitimacy of the post-war state... was built at once upon national equality and working class sovereignty'.4

The situation in Bosnia is traumatic in itself, but for those who believe that the country has descended to this from workers' control it must be even more harrowing and confusing. This factor mirrored the confusion felt across much of the left in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the USSR. This had repercussions for many people's understanding of all the major events of the 1990s, from the Gulf War to the role of the United Nations.

Regular readers of International Socialism will know that we have argued throughout that the roots of war in the former Yugoslavia and then Bosnia lay in the all round failure of first state capitalism and then market capitalism in the Balkans.5 We argued that Serbian, Croatian and then Bosnian Muslim leaders have waved the flag of nationalism in a last hope of saving their discredited regimes. We argued that the nationalism of the Serbs could not be sustained without suspicions and hatreds being fuelled by leaders of other nationalities. One of the former advisers of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman has said as much himself:

Some others, with a more ambivalent attitude to Western intervention have also acknowledged this pattern. Mary Kaldor, for example, has written:

International Socialism has insisted from the start that any Western intervention would both fail to provide a solution and inevitably mean the Western powers coming down on one side or the other. Indeed, we have argued that the methods and priorities of the Western powers can be no different to those of the local rulers in the former Yugoslavia. With no prospect of adequately patching up the rotten economic edifice, they too could offer nothing other than more ethnic partition:

And of the repeated rounds of Western diplomatic 'initiatives' we said:

Four years on, with no end in sight to the ethnic purges, with Western intervention having failed to protect anyone and with the Bosnian government allowing itself to be a plaything of the US state department, we stand vindicated by events in arguing against two other strands on the left. The first of these states that the wars in the former Yugoslavia are a matter of borders. 'Borders are for keeping', goes this version of events. 'Aggressors' can always be spotted as the ones who fire the first shot. This approach has led, in some cases, to an astonishing blindness to reality brought on by a fixation on the party who crossed the border first. So Branka Magas wrote:

Yet at the time this was written, a deal to partition Bosnia had already been struck between Milosevic and Tudjman, and endorsed by Bosnian leader Alia Izetbegovic. In the summer of 1993 and again in 1995 Croatia manoeuvred itself into an alliance which would give it effective control over large parts of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Elsewhere, John Sweeny argued in New Statesman and Society: 'By its obstruction of and lack of interest in Croatian self determination the British government remains the most effective ally in Europe of Greater Serbia and its brutal war machine. This is appeasement, 1991'.12 Similarly, Quentin Hoare attacked an article by Alex Callinicos, saying, 'Part of the problem is just misinformation. For instance, Callinicos seems to have bought the idea propagated by Belgrade, and relayed in this country notably by The Guardian, that Tudjman is some kind of raving antisemite and apologist for the Ustashe--which is demonstrably rubbish'.13 Presumably Tudjman's choice of non-Jewish wife and denial of the Holocaust constitute thin evidence of anti-semitism. Hoare also went on to claim that 'Croatia has no claim to territory outside its own frontiers. The existing borders are not merely preferable because of the--Pandora's box--argument, they are in any case basically just'.14

Once the Croatian leadership was exposed in practice as every bit as brutal as the Serbian leadership, many of Tudjman's former defenders switched alliance to the Bosnian government. Yet the tactics of the official Bosnian leadership have progressively come to mimic those of the Serbs and Croats. It is true they were the last to be drawn into the conflict, and lasted longer than any others as a multi-ethnic entity. However, the government under Alia Izetbegovic has had to turn to ethnically based solutions in the absence of a class based alternative. By turns the Bosnian leadership has found itself in alliance with Croatia, accepting Western demands for a solution based on separation, and then, from the end of 1993, combining both these policies with Muslim ethnic chauvinism to carve out the greatest possible slice of territory with offensives in central Bosnia. Izetbegovic, says one very sympathetic source, 'embraced the ethnicisation of politics as eagerly as any of his contemporaries'.15

Those who have steered clear of becoming embroiled with any of these nationalist former communists have been called 'appeasers'. The accusation is that we have matched the British government's effective support for the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. But in Spain the war was fought between, on the one hand, a Republican side of Communists, socialists, anarchists and liberals, and on the other hand, a nationalist side led by fascists. Franco aimed to annihilate working class organisation. The Republicans fought to improve workers' conditions and many anarchists and socialists fought for the overthrow of capitalism. This is a million miles away from the situation in the former Yugoslavia where all sides--no matter what their differences in military strength or their records of atrocities--are fighting for the control of territories in which the status quo will be upheld.

And the accusation of appeasement levelled against those who have consistently called for independent, working class opposition to all the main nationalist leaderships ill behoves those who have sprung to the political defence of people such as Tudjman. But more than illusions in the Croatian, Slovene and Bosnian leadership, the Western left's overwhelming response has been characterised by illusions in their own governments.

The call for intervention has dominated debate. This tendency was not exclusively applied to Bosnia, although that is where it found its loudest voice. The mess in Bosnia, plus the Gulf War and new turmoil in Africa provided the excuse for a major attack on one of the principle tenets of the left--uncompromising opposition to imperialism.

'Is everything imperialism does negative?' asked former New Left Review board member Fred Halliday. Michael Ignatief wrote of 'liberal intervention' which could 'protect minorities from majorities... feed the starving and... enforce peace in case of civil strife'.16 Former revolutionary Martin Shaw wrote that:

This, 'new view of imperialism' had definite implications in the Balkans:

Fred Halliday also called for the West to take up the 'white man's burden' in an new, enlightened fashion:

Halliday would no doubt have squirmed when his analogy was developed by right wing US foreign relations committee chairman Jesse Helms, who said that they should 'begin treating the Bosnians as we did the [Nicaraguan Contras]'.20

Others, such as Ken Cole, a former CND member, developed a strange new faith in the wonders of Western military technology so soon after the Gulf War. Blanket bombing, he said, was of course no solution, 'but with the technical wizardry and enormous capability of today's armed forces, there is no reason why the Serbian heavy guns and supply depots could not be picked off with minimal losses to civilians'.21

Some people had even more specific ideas about the new burdens on imperialism. David Marshland wrote in New Statesman and Society:

So while some on the left campaigned to uphold the honour of Croatia above that of Serbia (and then the honour of 'Bosnia' above all others), others sought a wholesale revision of opposition to imperialism. Amid these sorry capitulations, yet other voices could be heard: those who reluctantly and as a last resort hoped against their better judgement that some salvation might come from outside. Mary Kaldor, for example, perceptively wrote:

Yet even Kaldor goes on to call for a solution including Western intervention by 'military means'. Misha Glenny, who has in general provided excellent reportage and analysis, also reluctantly argued:

International Socialism, on the other hand, has always argued two further things. One is that there is no solution to be found in Western intervention, no matter how bad the situation. Four years of war and intervention must surely have proved that. And we have argued, even in the darkest days, that an alternative still exists: