The SWP, The Balkans, Nationalism and Imperialism in the 1999 War

Submitted by dalcassian on 13 November, 2008 - 9:05 Author: Sean Matgamna

If socialists operate in politics according to worked out positive principles, then they will generally be consistent. Should circumstances arise that compel them to seemingly veer from those principles, then they will explain themselves in terms of the base-line principles involved, or of some higher principle.

For example, socialists believe that peoples should be self-governing - that, for instance, where the compact majority wants it, Ireland has a democratic right to be free of British interference. But suppose that the British working class has taken power and a hostile Ireland is used as a base for attacking the British socialist workers' state? Defence of that state would be far more important than Ireland's national rights, and British (and Irish) socialists might choose - temporarily - to violate the democratic right to Irish self-determination in the name of a higher principle, working class self defence. Lenin's Bolsheviks had fought for Poland's right to self-determination, sincerely championing the Poles' right to secede from the Tsar's empire. In 1920, when they had beaten back invading Polish armies, they chased them across the border and took the Red Army as far as Warsaw.

What if you operate in revolutionary socialist politics in accordance with the belief that "tactics contradict principles" (the question is from Tony Cliff of the Socialist Workers Party: see Workers' Liberty 41)?

Essentially, that positive principles don't matter much. You will wind up extrapolating your operational positive principles from your negativism towards capitalism. They will be imposed mechanically on you. Instead of a comprehensive picture of reality and intelligent attempts to apply your principles, you will have an utterly one-sided political picture - the part that shares your negativism. "More substance in your hate than in your love", so to speak. You will lose independence on all big questions and become a mere negative imprint of those you hate and oppose. Not guided by positive principles, you may choose to stand back, refusing to "take sides", where there is no energising anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist negativism. To an observer who does not understand your nature, you will seem to make crazy zig-zags.

For example, Serbian armies are invading Croatia, or Bosnia - in Bosnia they are "ethnic cleansing" Muslims, slaughtering and destroying. Serbia has most of the arms of the old Yugoslav state; the Bosnians do not and, moreover, they are subject to an international arms embargo. Do you defend the Bosnians' right to self-determination and side with them, denounce the arms embargo, indict the Serbs? No: you write articles saying that, for socialists, each side, each nationalism, is as bad as the other, and they are all to blame. Where Lenin acutely argued that "the nationalism of the oppressed is not the same as the nationalism of the oppressor", you say "Yes, it is", adding that the massacred are as bad as those who massacre, the ethnically cleansed as bad as their murdering cleansers.

In Trotsky's appropriately disgusting image for it, you complacently "pick your nose" and remain "objectively" aloof in face of state-sponsored ethnic slaughter. You sagely comment that the victims of ethnic chauvinism today will, if they get the chance, change places with their persecutors. Your answer to the conflict? Socialism! Now! Immediately!

That was the SWP approach to events in ex-Yugoslavia in the first half of the 1990s. The democratic programme of working class politics adopted by the Balkan socialists as long ago as 1910 - for a democratic Balkan federation in which each of the participants will have the maximum national freedom consistent with the national freedom of others - was for them a voice from the tomb of pre-Stalinist socialism. Yet the Balkan socialist's politics - the early Communist International took them over - were rooted in reality. They were tools elaborated by socialists concerned with positive advances, with living, suffering peoples, for whom socialism had to be the work of a working class that had found political ways of freeing itself from nationalism and chauvinism. Thus, the emergence of such formulas as that of a Democratic Balkan Federation - a proposal that would in the right circumstances allow the workers of the embattled people and fragments of peoples to imagine a viable national freedom within coexistence with other peoples. Thus is would enable the socialists amongst them to begin to unite across the blood-filled communal and national ditches.

But our sectist friends, positive about nothing, except for the socialist final goal, are uniterested - they are determinedly, fixatedly negative. They are anti-capitalists of the primitive, say-no-when-they-say-yes-and-yes-when-they-say-no school; and they are "anti-imperialists" above all else. When Serbia started to clear out and kill off the Albanian people of Kosova (90% of the population), and NATO, for its own reasons and in its own extravagantly brutal and incompetent way, mounts a police action to compel Milosevic to stop - then the essentially depoliticised negativists know where they stand. They are "against imperialism". Which imperialism? Milosevic's primitive geno-imperialism? They are against NATO! It is not imperialism they are against, but NATO. Politics? For Marxists, war is politics by other means: what are the politics here? Politics? Who cares about politics? We are "against the war". Which war? Serbia's genocidal war in Kosova? NATO's war!

They are above all "against the bombing". They mount a - feeble, but that was not for want of trying - Stop the War campaign allied with pacifists and Morning Star neo-Stalinist, uncritical partisans of Milosevic. By way of depoliticised negativism against advanced capitalism and NATO, they back themselves into positive support for Milosevic. They make propaganda - the pamphlet Stop the War, for example - which by deliberately minimising what the Serbs are doing in Kosova is effectively cover-propaganda for attempted genocide. Having no positive programme of their own, except a disembodied "socialism", they wind up recoiling from NATO into de facto acceptance of the Morning Star's programme and... Milosevic's.

For the three months of the NATO-Serb war Socialist Worker turned itself into a vulgar, pro-Milosevic, war propaganda sheet on behalf of Serb imperialism in Kosova; they excluded mention of the Kosova Albanians except to insist that "NATO" was lying about what was going on in Kosova, and minimise it by indignant, pedantic refutations of exaggerated claims by ministers and newspapers that the Serb drive against the Albanians was the equivalent of the Holocaust. In meetings all over the country they fought against adopting slogans about Kosovan Albanians' rights. They achieved the difficult feat of being marginally less critical, less "objective" in their "reporting" than the Morning Star.

The nearest equivalent in the history of the British labour movement to Socialist Worker in these three months is the hypocritically pro-Hitler (Stalin's ally) "anti-war" propaganda of the Morning Star, then called the Daily Worker, between October 1939 and the government suppression of the paper in mid-1940, when a German invasion seemed imminent.

Where Socialist Worker should have taken sides, in Bosnia, for example, it was aloof, sectarian and politically abstentionist. Where it should have taken sides with the Kosovan Albanians, it refused to and in a passion of hysterical negativeism towards advanced capitalism and NATO wound up actively and positively - again see Stop the War - on Milosevic's side, that is on the side of Serb imperialism as it attempted genocide against the population of Serbia's colony, Kosova.

It would be difficult to imagine a more decisive, or more horrible, demonstration that socialists need positive politics - that is independent working-class socialist politics - unless reflex negativism is to turn them into reactionaries. Without positive politics rooted in an analysis of the whole of your reality, independent working class politics is impossible. To be merely negative, no matter how oppositional and r-r-revolutionary it sounds, is in fact to turn yourself into the imprint of whoever you are against. It is the opposite of independent politics.

This book, which came out after the end of the war, in June, is a collection of pieces by various people in Socialist Worker over 10 years.

It has the general politics described above. But it has comparitively very little from Socialist Worker's coverage of recent events. The overall impression is a misleading one of balance - too much, sectarian, balance and "nose-picking" objectivity, in fact. From this collection, which will circulate for years, you will get no inkling of Socialist Worker's crazy three months as unrestrained war propagandists for Milosevic, as he was trying to clear Kosova of Albanians. The book, so to speak, seals off that period.

It will be a pity if this rich, disruptive and spectacularly unprincipled sect is allowed to flush its three month record of Serb imperialist apologetics down the memory hole. Something tells me they won't...

Workers' Liberty #57