At the heart of the chaos into which Yugoslavia has now dissolved is the predatory expansion of the Serbian state, led by neo-Stalinists whose regime has a great deal of popular support. They utilise people such as the Serbs in the territory claimed by Croatia to serve a drive which is essentially a drive to create the largest possible "Greater Serbia". It is a primitive form of imperialism, whose real content is summed up in the phrase which expresses their policy for non-Serbs: "ethnic cleansing".
The old Yugoslav state broke down because, over the last decade, aggressive Serb chauvinism provoked and alarmed the smaller peoples, Croats and others, of the Yugoslav Federation.
Nationalism and chauvinism inevitably breeds... nationalism and chauvinism. The Croats were pushed and provoked by the Serbs. But when Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia, large numbers of Serbs - substantial majorities in some parts of the territory of historic Croatia - were cut off from other Serbs and trapped as a helpless minority in an alien state.
In the Croatian state set up under German patronage during World War Two, as many as half of the Serbs in Croatia - perhaps 3/4 of a million men, women and children - were massacred by Croat chauvinists, the Ustashe.
While Serb state leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic whose policies through the '80s led finally to the destruction of Yugoslavia, were chauvinists, people motivated by the desire to aggrandise Serbia, the Serbs in independent Croatia did not have to be chauvinists to resolve to fight rather than submit to outright Croatian rule. They needed only to remember the not too distant past and look around them at the efforts being made to revive Ustashe banners, uniforms and catchcries in the new Croatia.
Thus while millions in Croatia - to stick to the one example - felt the understandable need for separation, they could not achieve independence without oppressing and threatening others. And not only in Yugoslavia. The whole of the Balkans is a crazy pavement of peoples and fragments of peoples interlocked and overlapping, and standing in the way of each others' full autonomy.
From this it followed that maintenance of a broad federal structure was the best possible way for the peoples of Yugoslavia to arrange their affairs. But the structures broke down; the central state apparatus became increasingly a tool of Serb domination, serving Serb expansion. Everything dissolved into the bloody chaos of ethnic and national wars which is now raging.
Despite all the crimes of the Croatian chauvinists, the Croats' right to self-determination became the major issue between Croatia and Serbia; socialists have to uphold that right, championing the minority rights of the Serbs within Croatia but denying to Serbia any right to use those minorities as a pretext for trying to conquer as much of Croatia as they can.
The Serb chauvinists were as aggressive against Kosovo and Slovenia where there were no big problems of an oppressed Serbian minority as against Croatia.
Yugoslavia today may offer a picture of their own future to many other ethnically interlaced groups of people, including the occupants of large parts of the former Soviet Union.
Within this situation there is a growing demand for Western - UN, NATO - intervention to bring an end to the fighting. It is by no means certain that there will be Western military intervention. If there is, it is unlikely to bring peace or create a political framework within which the peoples of the former Yugoslavia can coexist. What military intervention would most likely amount to is action to stop Serbia expanding further, and to "freeze" the current carve-up of Bosnia. Already, anti-Serb sanctions are being mounted.
Is the conflict turning into something like the build-up to another edition of last year's war against Iraq? The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait quickly became the occasion for a savage Western war against Iraq.
Should socialists "Defend Serbia" from "Imperialist Aggression"? If there is Western military intervention it will be a police action to avert chaos on the borders of the immensely powerful European community: it will be a limited police action. If the cluster of wars now going on are allowed to burn themselves out, they will go on for a long time, many thousands will die, hundreds of thousands and maybe millions will be "ethnically cleansed" into refugee camps, and "Greater Serbia" may become a lot greater than it is now.
As socialists and anti-imperialists, we have no confidence in the Western capitalist powers: we warn against relying on NATO or UN intervention; we advocate working-class independence. But in the name of what alternative would we denounce and condemn, and demand an immediate end, to a limited police action by the big powers?
On the ground that everything that "imperialist" Western European states do is ipso facto "imperialist" and wrong, even if it has desirable results? This is not Marxist or working class politics but absurd "oppositionism", nihilism.
On the ground that 'outside' intervention is always wrong? What meaning can such a 'principle' have in face of the bloody ethnic melée which is engulfing the peoples of Yugoslavia? Why has Serbia more 'right' in Bosnia than a UN army acceptable to the majority of Bosnians would have? That reasoning is absurd.
On the ground that neo-Stalinist Serbia is a 'socialist' or 'workers'' state? It is nothing of the sort, but even if it were, then that would not require of socialists that we back Serbian imperialism, with all its inevitable slaughters and "ethnic cleansings". Such a position would be a reductio ad absurdum of a decades-old 'tradition' of kitsch Trotskyist "defencist" policies for the Stalinist states. It is sheer nonsense, on every level.
Or should we oppose a big power police action because we believe the destruction of Serb power, the prevention of the consolidation of the Greater Serb state is the real goal of Western "imperialist" intervention? For certain, the Western powers will only intervene militarily, with all the accompanying costs, dangers and precedents, to serve their own interests.
There are powers with imperialist ambitions to gain semi-colonies and spheres of influence in Yugoslavia and the whole area round the Black Sea. The UN, the EC, and NATO will not, however, lend their banners to Greek or Turkish ambitions! Germany will not vote for a UN operation which is a cover for neo-colonial action by the US and no other power is strong enough to be able to use the UN and NATO banners as its own. Indeed that is the reason why there has been no military intervention, and may well yet be none: the intervention will not give any big power a colony, or a sphere of influence, that it did not have before. From a capitalist point of view, it will have no advantage beyond stabilising the region for normal business, and they may have great difficulties even doing that.
That is why the governments so eager to send troops and weapons to the aid of "poor little Kuwait" are so cautious about Bosnia.
To be sure, the Western powers would probably be happy to kick Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian neo-Stalinists into history's abyss, and that might give some of them an added reason to intervene. But even a big war on Serbia might not do that, as Saddam Hussein could tell them.
Their main interest if they intervene will be to secure peace on the European Community's borders and 'stability' in Europe.
Absurd too is the idea that Western capital - in the first place German capital - needs military occupation to secure its domination in the former Eastern European Stalinist states. It has no such need.
The normal workings of the market - the sheer economic power of the West Europeans - make their domination in the East a certainty in the years to come - unless the working class should take power there. Right now the working class is in no condition to take power. Military intervention will just add to their costs, not facilitate West European capitalist penetration of the former Russian Empire.
If US and West European capital tries to play the international policeman on the EC's borders, we should counterpose to it something better. What exists in Yugoslavia now is worse. We are against the existing capitalist states, but we do not want to replace them with something worse: chaos is a lot worse.
The best outcome from the Yugoslav chaos would be for the working class in the various conflicting peoples to come together, settle accounts with their own chauvinists and tin-pot imperialists and restore a federation, this time under the control of the workers.
Short of that, socialists should want an end to the bloodshed and chaos. We have no confidence in the big capitalist powers and do not call on them to intervene: but if the West does intervene socialists can not side with Serbia and become "defencists" for Greater Serb imperialism.
Socialists should not declare, explicitly or implicitly, that the best thing is for the Yugoslav conflict to take its course with the strongest coming out at the end on top of the bloody pile.
Those socialists who adopt this posture because they want to be "anti-imperialists" will prove in their own way the basic truth that there is no consistently revolutionary politics without thought, clarity and Marxist theory. It will unfortunately, be a negative proof. This "anti-imperialism" is not anti-imperialism at all but support for the weaker and more primitive imperialism - Serbian imperialism!
Socialist Organiser 529, July 1992