Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
It is not entirely certain when the baby boomers became baby bombers, but it is a remarkable fact that a Europe dominated by Labour and social democratic governments has plunged the continent into a war which may spread far beyond Kosovo's boundaries. The foreign ministers of Germany and Britain are former peace campaigners, Bill Clinton dodged the draft for Vietnam and even Tony Blair once belonged to CND. Now all these people tell us that in the name of peace we must wage a humanitarian war. It is a contradiction in terms which is justified by much high flown talk about protecting minorities, defending human rights, and stopping the appeasement of fascism and genocide.
Ken Livingstone, the left Labour MP, was enthusiastic about Nato intervention in the parliamentary debate at the end of March. He wrote recently in the Independent (21 April) an article entitled 'Why we are not wrong to compare Milosovic to Hitler'. Only a handful of left Labour MPs have so far come out publicly against the war. On the other hand, many former left wingers are positively gloating about Nato air strikes and are desperately keen for ground troops to go in. It can indeed be argued that this is a war led politically by those who have considered themselves on the left--if ground troops do go in to fight in Kosovo, then the impetus for sending them will have come from this layer of people.
The argument is perhaps put most forcefully by Francis Wheen in the Guardian, who argues that in a war where Serbia is attacking Kosovo, we must take sides. In language which dovetails with that of the mainstream politicians, Wheen cites George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War in his defence of bombing Serbia. Yet Orwell and the Spanish workers fought for a workers' democracy and against fascism. They were not backed by big powers--the British and French governments refused to intervene on their side because they were considered too radical, and Stalin stabbed them in the back for the same reason. Workers who went to fight there did so because they saw it as the last battle to prevent fascism spreading throughout Europe.
There is no comparison with the situation today. Milosevic and his regime are not fascist--there are still workers' organisations and an opposition in Belgrade. There is not genocide against Albanians in the sense that there was against the Jews of Europe (or indeed in East Timor in the 1970s when a third of the population were killed by Indonesia). Driving people out of their homes and committing atrocities in order to ensure that they go is terrible and should be stopped, but it is not the systematic annihilation of a whole race. Milosevic is a former Communist boss, a right wing opportunist who has played the nationalist card to maintain his rule. He is far from being alone in this respect--his counterpart in Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, is just as right wing and warmongering and has himself been involved in large amounts of ethnic cleansing. Ideologically there is much more of a case for calling Tudjman a fascist for his links to the pro-fascist Ustashe and his denial of the Holocaust. Yet, far from being a pariah of the west, Tudjman is regarded as a key ally and even a beacon of civilisation by those left warmongers such as Michael Foot.
It is in the name of stopping the greatest evil in Europe since Hitler that the same left now calls for Nato air strikes and ground troops against Serbia. Yet memories are short. There were, as a matter of fact, two fascist dictatorships left in Europe after the Second World War which lasted until the mid-1970s--Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal were repressive, undemocratic and engaged in human rights abuses, with many political opponents executed or imprisoned for years. There was a right wing dictatorship in Greece in the late 1960s. Nato and the West tolerated these regimes, and certainly never countenanced intervention. There are countless examples of other attacks on populations and severe infringements of human rights that have been ignored or even encouraged by the west. Indonesia and Turkey, oppressors of the East Timorese and Kurds respectively, have been armed and aided by the west. Indeed, Turkey is a member of Nato, and is described as one of the 19 democracies fighting Milosevic--even though the level of repression against the Kurds and the suppression of internal Turkish opposition are at least as bad as anything the Serb government has done.
The answer that comes from the left is that, whatever the great powers have done in the past, surely we should be pleased that they are doing something now? But this begs the question--why are they doing it now? Are we seriously supposed to believe that Nato has undergone a miraculous transformation into a peace organisation with the sudden adoption of humanitarian ethics, or is this war about the maintenance and extension of imperial power in the region? Nato is a military machine, expressly set up at the start of the Cold War in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Its aim is to extend its influence over the region, looking on the one hand to ensure that oil extraction in the Caspian Sea will benefit western capitalism, and on the other hand to extending the rule of the EU--and by proxy the US--further east. This war in Serbia is not about the wellbeing of the refugees and of the ordinary Albanians from Kosovo. It is about attempting to use the pretext of war against Slobodan Milosevic to dominate the whole of the Balkans. Milosevic has therefore received the Saddam Hussein treatment--past western allegiances have been ignored and he has been built up into a much greater threat than he or his regime actually represent.
So the left is taking sides with an organisation which has never had a humanitarian aim and which is bent on all out war. What will that war mean? It has already made things worse. The Nato bombing has led to an escalation of the humanitarian disaster. It has meant greater displacement of the population, and the whole region has again been turned into a war zone where, as we have already seen, refugees themselves have been killed by Nato bombs. In the eight years before the bombing, 300,000 Kosovan Albanians became refugees. In the first 16 days following the Nato attack, 800,000 Kosovan Albanians became refugees. Anyone who believes that the west has the refugees' best interests at heart should consider the western governments' behaviour in this regard--they do not want the refugees in their countries and refuse to spend more than a fraction of their arms spending on humanitarian aid. Instead they are expecting a lot of this money to come from charity. Britain and France have refused to take in more than a handful of refugees and the US has planned to put them in the US controlled Guantanamo Bay in Cuba--effectively a prison camp. The likely future for the Albanians will be either partition, or an international protectorate, or displacement in 'safe havens' living in totally miserable conditions.
The war is also a humanitarian disaster for ordinary Serbs. Cities such as Novi Sad and Belgrade are being bombed regularly, and there is now no pretence that targets are restricted to the military. Flats, hospitals, bridges, railways and factories have been attacked. Casualties already run into hundreds, if not thousands. At first the pro-war liberals seemed to think this could not happen. Martin Woollacott, writing in the Guardian (again!) at the beginning of the war in an article entitled, 'The Serbs Don't Appreciate How Carefully The Force Against Them Is Being Deployed' (27 March), wrote,
This callous view of ordinary Serbs is the logic of 'taking sides' in a conflict where it is impossible to make sense of the war or to find a solution to the crisis simply by backing one nationality or another. It has led in the past to an uncritical backing of the Bosnian government, which has itself engaged in ethnic cleansing, on the grounds that this was the side under attack. When over 200,000 Serbs were ethnically cleansed from Krajina by Croatia (backed by Nato), the liberals were largely hard-hearted. There was no mass television coverage of refugees or killings, no demands that something must be done. Instead the view at the time can be summed up by the following from the Independent. 'It is tempting to feel euphoric about this week-end's Serbian defeat at the hands of the Croats. At last, the Serbs have been taught an overdue lesson, given a dose of the medicine that they have so freely administered over recent weeks to Bosnia's Muslims' (7 August 1995). Presumably the pro-war left will feel similarly euphoric over any Nato defeat of Serbia--until the next outbreak of crisis, for example in the area of Vojvodina, which contains many ethnic Hungarians and where Nato bombings are increasing the likelihood of future ethnic tensions.
For the further logic of taking sides is to cause much greater instability in the region, which in turn will be met by greater use of force by the west, with the possibility of the whole area being plunged into war. If that happens, there will be even greater problems of ethnic cleansing and of refugees without any solution in sight. Far from helping left, liberal or democratic opinion in the region, politics will become hardened along national lines as has already happened in Serbia, and those who want to live in multi-ethnic communities and stand up to nationalist politics will find themselves isolated. The introduction of ground troops will make any such instability greater and can lead to a war of huge proportions.
Why is the left split in Britain and elsewhere over the war in a way that it was not, for example, over Vietnam, or even over the Gulf? Partly, because the situation is complicated--many of those who support war do so in the genuine belief that it will improve the lot of ordinary Kosovan Albanians, although that is proving an increasingly forlorn hope. But it is also because of the change which has taken place in the left internationally over the past decade. The collapse of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe not only led directly to the wars in former Yugoslavia, but also led to an ideological crisis for a left which historically had looked to Russia as some kind of model, the supporter of Third World liberation movements and a better alternative to the West. Today much of that left has lost its compass and has no clear guidelines over which movements or otherwise it should support. This is obvious from those on the left who simply call for arming the KLA, without understanding that it is increasingly under the direction and support of Nato.
In addition the left especially the Labour and social democratic left--has moved to embrace the market. Blair in Britain and Schröder in Germany are particular enthusiasts, and are therefore keen to prove themselves as pro-US, even if they have to dress up their warmongering in left wing or radical rhetoric. The weakness of the left in standing up to them is all too obvious in the dismally few Labour MPs who oppose the war, or in the pro-war stance of a paper such as Tribune.
Their distancing of themselves from politics based on class has led the social democratic and Labour left to abandon any notion of ordinary people having a say in how to change the world or how to run it for the better. Yet, despite the horrors of what is happening in Kosovo and the wider Balkans, it is precisely through approaching the question with a class analysis that we can begin to make any sense of it and begin to find a solution. That means rejecting taking either the side of the Serb regime or of the KLA, and rejecting the role of US imperialism in the region. The vast majority of people in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe do not want war. War makes things much worse for working people; it also blurs the class divisions of society and unites working people behind the notion of a supposed national interest.
Opposition to war has always come from below. The Vietnam War was ended because the Vietnamese fought courageously against the US, but also because US soldiers and students protested and demonstrated, and in the end refused to fight. Demonstrations against nuclear weapons have mobilised hundreds of thousands in the past decades. In this war, only a minority opposes it from the outset. But as the carnage and the lies continue, and as no real solution is on offer from the military powers, that opposition will grow. It is the duty of every socialist to demonstrate and argue against this war, and to try to stop the bombing. The alternative is to condemn great tracts of the world to a barbarism of which this may only be the beginning--and which the pro-war left have helped to bring closer.