Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Faced with carnage in the Balkans, many on the left have seen no other possibility but to take sides. A handful, out of distrust of Western anti-Serbian propaganda, have sided with the Serbs, and a few around Tony Benn oppose Western intervention (though he too is prepared to share platforms with pro-Serb anti-interventionists). But the vast majority have become cheerleaders for Bosnia.
The result is to put them in the same camp as the right wing critics of the British and American governments. The pro-Bosnian section of the left has joined hands with the ultra-imperialists who want to increase Western military intervention in the Balkans. This capitulation to the idea that tough action is needed to face down reactionary powers first surfaced during the Gulf War, when a section of the left saw Saddam Hussein's regime as qualitatively worse than bourgeois democracy and drew the conclusion that the US might have a progressive role to play. Now the argument found in publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman is that Serbia is a fascist power getting away with aggression because democrats are failing to defend Bosnia.
The comparison is with the 1930s. The Western European powers, dithering and impotent, are like the appeasers who failed to intervene to prevent the spread of Hitlerism across Europe. Unless the Serbs are stopped now, a similar catastrophe will begin to unfold. Those who oppose intervention are complicit with the appeasers or, even worse, with Serbian fascism.
Thus former Labour Party leader Michael Foot brands Bosnia 'the great anti-fascist war of your generation'. Left wing MP Calum MacDonald sees Bosnia as 'Spain, Abyssinia and Czechoslovakia rolled into one. It is as clear to me how the left should react, as it was to Hitlerism in the 1930s'. Ed Vulliamy endorsed these sentiments in The Guardian in mid-July using a tone bordering on the apocalyptic:
These evils are 'comparable to the worst horrors of the Holocaust itself', argued Michael Foot, this time from the platform of a 1,500 strong meeting called by the Alliance to Defend Bosnia-Hercegovina in late July. The Bosnian ambassador in London painted a larger picture of barbarism, 'If the Serb fascists win, tomorrow it will be the Russian fascists.'
It follows, therefore, as another speaker put it, that the defence of Bosnia is no local matter, 'The Bosnian army is fighting for civilisation and culture'. Vulliamy reinforced the idea. 'None of this need have happened. Bosnia is being destroyed in a drunken Gestapo way. The future of Bosnia is the yardstick of how to judge this civilisation.'
These are emotional statements. Nonetheless the argument is false. The idea that what is happening in Bosnia is like the Holocaust is to trivialise both the scale of what happened in the Nazi death camps and what they tell us about a truly fascist regime.
The systematic murder of 6 million Jews by production line methods is what gives the Holocaust its uniqueness in comparison with the mass killings which occur in any large scale and long lasting civil war. It took place in an advanced, heavily industrialised country whose ruling class resorted to the use of a mass movement to smash working class organisation.
Serbia bears no resemblance. It is not in the same economic league as Nazi Germany, nor can one point to a mass fascist movement of the type which characterised Nazi Germany.
Under Hitler there were no independent working class organisations. Serbia possesses trade unions with sufficient independence to have organised a general strike over wages only three years ago.
In addition Bosnia cannot be compared to the prewar victims of fascism, least of all to Spain. The civil war in Spain was at bottom a class war, with the bulk of the bourgeoisie lining up behind Franco and the mass of the working class and peasantry defending their control of the land and the factories within the republic. No such seizure of land or factories has occurred in Bosnia.
If Bosnia is no Spain, perhaps it is an Abyssinia or a Czechoslovakia, with a right to self defence? Again, the comparison doesn't hold. The right to self defence is fine so long as that country does not become a pawn of imperialist intervention. Bosnia's existence cannot now be disentangled from the interests of imperialism.
Bosnia is allied to Croatia, which has been given carte blanche by the US to drive Serbs out of their homes in Krajina. To champion Bosnia's right to self defence in the abstract is simply to legitimate the whole ghastly process and to line up, once again, with the most reactionary elements of Western imperialism.
The tragedy of the civil war in Bosnia is that there are no class differences between the Serbs and the Muslims; its bitterness derives from the fact that both sides marshal the same people under rival national flags. Between these rival nationalisms there is no essential difference. To support Bosnia on the grounds that we are defending a 'progressive' cause is a grotesque travesty of the truth.
But it is worse than that. For the idea that we are involved in an anti-fascist crusade is also wrapped up in the idea that we should invoke intervention, no matter what the nature of that intervention, and should ally ourselves with anyone, no matter how reactionary. As the left wing weekly Tribune put it, 'Even Margaret Thatcher can be right sometimes and on this issue she is.' Time and time again the appeal to do something about the situation is couched in terms of the need to restore the credibility of the UN or the moral authority of Nato.
It is argued that the only problem with these bodies is that they have failed to act, and so betrayed the trust of small nations. But this is to assume that their purpose is to keep the peace. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Both the UN and Nato exist to preserve the imperialist world order. The 'indecisiveness' of the UN reflects not a reluctance to intervene but splits and tensions between the world's ruling classes as to how to intervene.
The contradiction they face is this: they feel that if they do not intervene the conflict will spill over and affect much more vital interests, chiefly in the Middle East. But they can not intervene too directly for fear of being sucked into a land war with unacceptable casualty rates.
Up till now, they have more or less accepted the idea of political diplomacy to get the different sides themselves to regularise ethnic cleansing (the various plans to divide Bosnia), with troops being no more than a backup.
Now the balance is being tipped (by an increasingly influential section of the US ruling class) in favour of a different option. They hope that a combination of Nato air power and a rearmed Bosnian army can provide the military muscle for a solution without having Western troops bogged down in a Vietnam style quagmire. None of this resolves the other problem of containing the conflict once the ever leakier arms embargo is ended.
This phase of imperialist meddling inevitably means greater and not less bloodshed. In the Gulf War 'precision bombing' by the US of Iraqi military targets resulted in thousands of civilian casualties--and that was in a sparsely populated and easily observable desert terrain. How can it be any more precise in the context of a very different country like former Yugoslavia--especially if Nato decides to aim its bombs at large cities like Belgrade?
By supporting intervention the left will be powerless to stop ever more reactionary forms of nationalism appearing. It will also find itself on the opposite side to those in the anti-war movement who want to combat nationalism.
A foretaste of that came in the meeting of the Alliance to Defend Bosnia-Herzegovina, at which Michael Foot and Ed Vulliamy spoke, when a message from Serbian anti-war protesters in Belgrade was jeered by a good third of the audience.
Those who have called for workers' aid to defend a 'multi-ethnic' Bosnia are in reality backing such reactionary nationalism. Some have openly endorsed anti-Serb chauvinism.
It is not the job of the left to find reasons to encourage intervention. It is our job to say no to such intervention, however much dressed up in democratic garb, and yes to each and every element of class resistance to all the nationalisms of the region.