Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright Socialist Review


Time to take sides?

I am writing in reply to the article about taking sides in Yugoslavia (September SR). I think that revolutionary socialists should take sides--that of supporting Bosnia, though clearly not the intervention by Western powers. The background facts are clear. Several ex-Stalinist leaders used nationalism as a means of diverting an upsurge of working class action. There was ample evidence of the start of a strike wave in post-Tito Yugoslavia, and so on.
The subsequent actions of the Serbs seem to me to be clearly racist, and those of the Croatians are no better. You hardly need a six page article in SR to prove what everyone knows--Croatia is a leading player, has elements of fascism, is backed by the West and just as guilty as the Serbian army. Did you seriously expect anything else?
It is clear too that the article is correct so far as the Serbian and Croatian leaders are concerned. But Bosnia, which remained a multiracial element well into the struggle, can be regarded as a classical case of a national liberation struggle. It is visibly the victim of a nationalist carve up by Serbia and Croatia. The military invasion, racial massacres, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps are all the standard signs of oppression. They also have strong overtones of Nazi and Stalinist atrocities. To equate Bosnia with the other two states is in fact a travesty of the truth. Much play is made of alleged atrocities by the Bosnians which seem fairly minor. Even if true, it is a fundamental lesson that the violence of the oppressed cannot be equated with that of the oppressor.
I am glad to see that the old rubbish about 'all' leaders in ex-Yugoslavia are ex-Stalinists--a feature of many previous articles--has at last been dropped. Bosnia's Izetbegovic was in fact imprisoned as an Islamic fundamentalist. Now it seems that Izetbegovic is in league with Croatians to drive off the Bosnian Serb forces. Did they have much choice, would be a better question. The whole point about giving critical support to national liberation struggles is that we may disagree with their politics but support their fight.
So what are the implications of taking sides? It is clear there is no sign of a socialist revolution, so the parallels drawn by many left groups with Spain are quite incorrect. Equally wrong is the substitutionalism of organising food trucks for refugee relief. This is no way for revolutionaries to act. The article assumes that any taking of sides automatically supports intervention, or that abstract 'support for Bosnia' legitimises Western intervention. This is the politics of guilt by long distance association, and it is sad to see smear politics in a revolutionary journal. Support for Bosnian national liberation does not mean support for Nato any more than support for the ANC meant support of US capitalism's investment boycott in South Africa.
The facts of Bosnia's case cannot be lumped in with a theory about imperialism in a simplistic way. It does not fit. Nor does the statement that Bosnian existence cannot be disentangled from imperialist interests. This is ironic now that imperialist interests are imposing a settlement that means most of the devastating effects of Serbian actions are to be preserved as legitimate! And of course, the Croatians get their cut too.
For the sake of clarity let us now declare that the Bosnians have been the victims of the imperialist forces of Croatia, Serbia and the Nato powers. We cannot play any actual part in the struggles or even influence them but we can be clear where we stand. The padding in the article about the attitudes of various reformist politicians should not be used to hide the basic fact that we critically support anti-imperialist struggles, as well as totally support revolutionary socialists when they act--that is the side we are on.
Alan Woodward
North London

Time to say no?

SR was absolutely right to say that socialists cannot take sides in the war in former Yugoslavia. The longer the horror continues, the more obvious this becomes.
The Bosnian government has shown its true colours in the last couple of weeks. Far from being the victims in the conflict, as the Western media would have us believe, the Alia Izetbegovic government has proved no shirker when it gets the chance for a bit of ethnic cleansing. At least 70,000 Serb refugees have fled the joint Bosnian-Croat offensive in western Bosnia.
You would have to be wilfully blind not to see the role Nato's bombing raids have played in all this. Socialists must oppose outside intervention by Western powers, which has only heightened the suffering of ordinary people in the region. Those on the left who had illusions in the 'peace keeping' capabilities of the UN and Nato imperialism must surely now start to have doubts.
But what about the peace talks? Hasn't the bombing forced the Serbs to the negotiating table? Sadly there is little hope there either. If a plan was agreed it would only mean UN white tanks supervising a new round of ethnic cleansing and partition. There has been no shortage of talks in the last four terrible years. But each time a map is on the table, the rival nationalist gangsters seek to draw lines through populations with shells and bullets.
The Bosnian government is already using its recent barbarity to resist the 51 to 49 percent plan of the US. There is no honour amongst thieves, as shown by the recent reports of fighting between Croatian and Muslim armies over recently captured Serb towns. Anyway, as The Guardian recently printed, any 'diplomatic' solution will depend on a US troop commitment President Clinton cannot make, and a multi-million dollar economic reconstruction package he cannot promise.
The trouble with those sections of the left who have called for military intervention is that they have faith in a solution imposed from above because they have no faith in a solution from below. Their new found enthusiasm for high explosives is only the flip side of the contempt with which they view the workers and peasants of the region. The true socialist position is just the opposite--no to Western militarism, no to Balkan militarism, yes to Balkan revolutions.
Maddy Cooper

The ones who really suffer

Since the feature on Bosnia (September SR) Nato has been blasting away at Bosnian Serb targets, going so far as to fire Cruise missiles at them. This has simply completed the reversing of the military balance in favour of the Croatian and Bosnian armies. It could be the prelude to all out war in the Balkans and will not provide any long-term peaceful solution. The danger now, of course, is of Serbia re-entering the war, in particular if Banja Luka is attacked or if the Croats try to recapture Eastern Slavonia. In addition, the Croats and Muslim led Bosnians appear to have separate agendas in Bosnia.
In the feature on Bosnia I documented the growth of three significant reactions to the war: the anti-war movements in both Serbia and Croatia, led largely by pacifists; the rising level of class struggle in 1993 against the effects of the war in those countries and the growing rate of desertions and draft dodging among Bosnian Serbs.
Since the imposition of sanctions against Serbia in May 1992 by the Security Council, the Serbian peace movement has been in decline. Arguably this is at least in part due to Western sanctions. Certainly, the war itself has caused severe economic dislocation. But this has been greatly aggravated by the embargo. Clearly the blockade does not affect the lifestyle of the leaders and profiteers, whereas it has had a disastrous effect on the living standards of ordinary workers and peasants, particularly in depressed regions. Serbian workers have suffered great pauperisation and seem for the moment to be demoralised, totally preoccupied as they are with everyday survival. This is particularly so in the absence of an alternative revolutionary lead.
The effect of sanctions has always been to unite the population behind the existing leaders, however much they are otherwise hated. We see a similar effect in the case of the sanctions imposed against Iraq.
The current escalation of the war presents an opportunity to anti-war campaigners in all the nationalist regimes. The danger of heightened Western intervention is that it will make it even harder for dissenters to oppose their governments.
Sabby Sagall

Top of the league

Chris Harman's article 'Hitting the High Notes' (September SR) is valuable in clearing up a number of confusions about culture. But it leaves a few problems unresolved.
Chris is quite right to argue that we can have good grounds for discriminating between 'good' and 'bad' art. However, this does not mean everything can be ranged on a single scale--indeed, the idea of a single hierarchy (the Top 40, the Football League) is an eminently bourgeois idea.
Certainly Shakespeare confronts issues not touched on by The Bill. But equally The Bill--or better Between the Lines--confronts issues Shakespeare could not be expected to, such as racism and police corruption. It's not an either or choice.
To take another example, in the last resort Victor Serge is not as great a writer as Shakespeare. But saying that is not very useful. Of all the interesting things that can be said about Serge, the least interesting is that he was not as good as Shakespeare. I want both Shakespeare and Serge. And I shall recommend Comrade Tulayev rather than King Lear to a new SWP member.
Secondly, let's be clear that the debate will never be resolved. The idea that there is a single 'socialist' style of art is a Stalinist myth. In the magnificent final chapter of Literature and Revolution Trotsky predicts that under socialism political conflict will be replaced, in part, by debate between different artistic schools. Even long after the revolution some of us will prefer Zola to George Eliot and Country Joe and The Fish to Mozart.
Ian Birchall

Too many short cuts

John Molyneux's obituary of Ernest Mandel (September SR) is a very fair summary of his life and politics. What it does not touch upon is the impact of those politics. After all, Mandel's politics have claimed many hundreds of adherents in Britain over the past 30 years or so.
Unfortunately very few of them remain revolutionary socialists. A strong element of Mandel's politics, at least in practice, always seemed to involve the search for a short cut to building socialist organisation. This writer can well remember the ringing phrase 'class struggle left wing' which tended to look at left leaning union leaders with rose tinted spectacles.
As a result many once excellent revolutionaries are now right wing Labour councillors or MPs. Many more hold positions of managerial significance in local councils. They have certainly succeeded themselves but they have not changed the world in the way Mandel wanted.
Keith Flett

School's out

On Tuesday 18 March an angry meeting of teachers in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, was followed by several arrests. Leading union members were then flown to a remote part of the country and incarcerated in military garrisons. The press reported health threats such as yellow fever and TB.
The Bolivian government's harsh treatment of the leaders did not intimidate the teachers. For at least 51 days they sustained their strike, supported by the bulk of the population. The struggle which led to the imprisonment of over 1,000 trade unionists in April, a curfew, and other restrictions imposed by the 'state of siege' eventually got the rural schools reopened on 3 May.
The teachers' strike was more than a demand for an increase on their inadequate wages. It was a response to educational reforms which threaten the survival of state education. The new law demands that every five years teachers have to submit to an exam. Those who fail will be sacked. Apart from causing insecurity it is also an attack on trade union activity. The union predicts 'fewer and worse teachers'. Education is already under resourced with classes of between 40 to 60 and a school day lasting only four hours. Reduction of the allowances for rural teachers was an additional spur to action.
The message of the May Day march was clear. International Workers' Day is celebrated throughout the world--even when gatherings of more than three people have been banned by a state of siege.
Walking four abreast the marchers, mainly teachers, clapped as they called for people to join in their struggle for bread and education. The march ended with a meeting in the town square where we kept a minute's silence in memory of the Chicago Martyrs who were killed on 1 May 1886 when making the basic trade union demands for 8 hours work, 8 hours rest and 8 hours education.
Classroom teachers in Britain and in Bolivia share the daily challenge of attempting to educate impoverished pupils. No wonder they are angry.
Julie Boston

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