Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism In Kosova in 1999 — a dialogue

The left and the Serb-Kosova-NATO War (1999)

By Sean Matgamna

Three people aroud a table in a back-street pub between Kings Cross and Euston stations. They have come from the Friends Meeting House on Euston Road, where Tony Benn MP, the one-time Catholic bishop Bruce Kent, the journalist Paul Foot and others have spoken against NATO's bombing of Serbia. The three are old college friends who have not seen each other in a long while...
Stop the bombing! Arm the Kosovars!

Tony: That was a hell of a meeting, eh? It's many years since we've had an overflow meeting like that! Footsie and Bruce Kent were in great form. And Benn is fantastic!

Kate: I thought it was a dreadful meeting, Alice in Wonderland stuff - the Kosovars were scarcely mentioned. Nobody said clearly that the great crime now is Serbia's genocidal war on the Kosovars. Nobody talked about them or their rights. A man from outer space dropping in on that meeting would get a radically false picture of what's been happening in the Balkans. At the overflow meeting Alex Callinicos, one of your leading SWP comrades, Tony, blamed NATO for what's happening to the Kosovars! Even if the bombing of Serbia was useful to Slobadon Milosevic in launching the 'ethnic cleansing', to put the main blame on NATO is bonkers. Because Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 we blame Britain for the Holocaust? I was a bit surprised that you haven't gone the whole hog and called for 'NATO out of Kosova!' instead of calling for the withdrawal of the real occupying army, Serbia's.

Tony: That would be plain stupid: NATO is not in Kosova. Your problem is that you're soft on imperialism!

Kate: Your problem is that you are siding with Serbia-Yugoslavia!

Linda: Actually, Kate, on the way to the pub I rang Stan in Glasgow, where there was an anti-war demonstration this evening. The SWPers there were chanting 'NATO out of Kosova!'

Kate: Yes? Then I'm incapable of imagining a viable bit of reductio ad absurdum that isn't instantly overtaken by reality: these days the so-called 'left' is satire-proof.

Tony: Obviously they were anticipating events.

Kate: Everyone knows that the Scots left is more advanced than the English!

Tony: Look: 'the main enemy is at home!' - as in Luxemburg's and Liebknecht's slogan in World War 1. We don't live in Yugoslavia or Kosova: we live in a NATO country that is bombing Serbia. Our job is to oppose this Government and this war. We can't affect events in Kosova; we can maybe, effect what Britain does. We can organise the youth - there could be a big anti-war movement, like that against the Vietnam war.

Linda: I think, Kate, that you are just soft on NATO and imperialism. The bombing is a crime against humanity! Any bombing would be. We can give a lead to thousands of people angered by it. There are tremendous opportunities for the left in this situation!

Tony: 'NATO out of the Balkans' makes sense in that perspective!

Kate: This is the politics of the lunatic asylum! Naturally, we neither trust NATO nor give it support: we must warn people that NATO has backed Serbia's grip on Kosova since the current Yugoslav crisis started in 1988, remind them of how NATO maintained an arms embargo to stop the Bosniacs defending themselves against Serb 'ethnic cleansing' and how murderous the supposed 'safe havens' there proved for the Bosniacs, and warn them that NATO is likely to rat on the Kosovars now too. We must expose the cynical big power interests behind the NATO action and point out that it is not arming the Kosovars so that they can defend themselves. NATO has been consistently against Kosovan self-determination, and even more so the independence they clearly now want. No trust in NATO, bombs or troops! But the greatest crime being perpetrated now is not NATO bombing, but the mass murder and the driving out of the ethnic Albanians by the Serb state and its Kosovar-Serb accomplices. Already, more than half the Kosovars have been killed or driven out. To 'forget' about that is a political crime. Our first and foremost responsibility is to side with the Kosovars. To side with the Serbs beggars belief! Yet that is clearly what concentrating on denouncing NATO comes down to.

Tony: The main enemy is at home! Liebknecht knew...

Kate: So you think this, like the First and Second World wars, is a war between imperialist camps?

Tony: No, it is not, obviously. Yugoslavia is not an imperialist country.

Linda: I'm not even sure it is a capitalist country.

Tony: Britain and NATO are imperialist powers and that's decisive. The enemy is at home. When they make war we oppose it. The details don't matter! We ally with anyone who agrees with that all-defining point.

Kate: We are on a point of principle opposed to everything the Western European powers do? If what Serbia is doing in Kosova is not imperialism, what is it? When Serbia first seized Kosova in 1913, Trotsky described Serbia's role as imperialist. Even if you choose to say that Serbia's role in Kosova is something other than imperialist, why and on what principle is that something - call it what you like - a lesser evil then imperialism. We are - in principle? - opposed to all war?

Tony: What should we do? Back NATO? Back the bombing?

Kate: We must maintain, or rather develop, the working class as an independent political force. Right now that means making the left consistently independent. It can't mean siding with the Serbian state. It can't mean ignoring the issues in dispute! It can't mean pretending that the Kosovars don't exist - or that they don't matter!

Tony: You can't be more independent than when you flatly oppose your 'own' government's war drive!

Kate: Depends. If you make a principle of saying 'yes' when they say 'no' and 'no' when they say 'yes', then you aren't independent at all - you are only a negative reflection of whatever the ruling class policy is.

Independence consists first of all in making an independent working-class analysis and judgement. You abandon that duty if you define yourself always by mechanically inverting what the ruling class is and does. You become utterly dependent; the independence your 'oppositionism' seems to give you is entirely an illusion! You can't always say 'yes' to their 'no' and 'no' to their 'yes'.

Tony: So what in what NATO is doing do you say 'yes' to?

Kate: Put like that - nothing! The old cry of the Marxist movement 'not a person, not a penny for this system' is our basic approach. We are 'the party of intransigent opposition'. Within that fundamental pproach we examine the issues honestly and concretely. A
s Old Labour right-wingers like Denis Healy and some of the Tories have pointed out, the bombing can't possibly achieve its stated objectives, stopping the genocidal drive against the Kosovars. For some, the conclusion is that ground forces too are needed.

Tony: You advocate ground forces? You'd support their deployment? You'd give political credence and trust to NATO - in Britain, to the Blair Government! That is surrender to imperialism! I'd rather support Serbia than Blair and NATO!

Kate: We shouldn't support or give credence to any of them. But neither do we give support or credence to their opponents - who in this case are worse, tribalist butchers out of the Dark Ages! We should build the so-called 'Third Camp' of the working class and the oppressed.

In the first place, now, that means an honest appraisal of the issues. You can't honestly appraise anything if you start out with the belief that you must negate, invert, your own ruling class policy, turn their policy inside out, support its opposite, give aid and comfort to its enemies - to a Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein - because they are its enemies, no matter what they are or what they do.

Linda: The first thing is to organise a broad coalition against the war...

Kate: No - the first thing is to work out what's going on! Otherwise the 'Marxists' will - as at tonight's meeting - wind up in an incoherent rotten coalition with pacifists like Bruce Kent, anti-Germans like Tony Benn, still fighting World War 2, and Stalinists like the Morning Star and Arthur Scargill! The real pioneers of the attitude your organisation now takes, Tony, is the Stalinist Morning Star, which reports everything from Slobodan Milosevic's point of view.

Linda: It is not the first time, you know, that Germans have bombed Serbia!

Kate: No: and you think that sort of rhetoric can decide the question, eh? What is NATO's policy?

Linda: They want to carve up the Balkan peninsula into tiny and impotent states, so they can dominate them: divide and rule! They fear that a big Yugoslavia would not be biddable. They resent the fact that Milosevic still calls himself a socialist. They fear what the Socialist Labour Party's paper called 'the workers' state tradition' in Serbia-Yugoslavia. They deliberately broke up Yugoslavia: German recognition of the Croatian secession was the first blow. They are aggressors, interfering in the internal affairs of Yugoslavia. Kosova is an internal Yugoslav affair! Yugoslavia has a right to defend its sovereignty and integrity.

Tony: In isolation, we might sympathise with the Kosovars: now they are playing into the hands of imperialism and reaction.

Kate: The politics of the madhouse! Of course the big capitalist powers want stability in the Balkans so that capitalism can thrive there. Everything else you've said is nonsense. There are about 10 million Serbs in Yugoslavia. The EU would feel threatened by a bigger, concentrated Serb population in a larger territory? Why? How? War is politics by other means: what has been the big bourgeoisie's policy in Europe in the last half-century? To unite Europe. It is more united now than at any time in the last 1,500 years. The EU wants stability on its borders; of course capitalists want to exploit the Balkans and that is their central quarrel with Milosevic: the great de-stabilising force in the region throughout the '90s has been Serb chauvinism. In fact, all the big Western powers strongly favoured maintaining the Yugoslav federation until they began to see it as plainly unviable in 1990-91. They supported Milosevic when he suppressed autonomy in Kosova. Germany started urging EU recognition of Croatia only after more than 90% of Croatia's people had voted in a referendum to secede: the recognition itself came only after Serbia had invaded the newly-independent Croatia. Germany, the EU and the USA want states as big as possible and as stable as possible in the Balkans. They object to Milosevic not because he is a regional 'strong man', and certainly not because he is any sort of a socialist, but because he is an erratic, unreliable and destructive strong man, cynically playing with plans for a Greater Serbia which cannot succeed. The idea that they need in the Balkans tiny impotent states makes no sense here. The capitalist powers do not need to physically conquer Yugoslavia to attain their basic capitalist goals: occupation would be expensive and risky. Short of a socialist revolution or a retreat to siege economics the Balkan states will naturally become fringe states of the EU - as Croatia and Slovenia already have.

Linda: The 'Yugolsav' (Serbian) regime still calls itself socialist. It has a 'workers' state tradition'.

Kate: And NATO needs to go to war over that? Using its economic strength, European capitalism could quickly and peacefully put paid to any remnants of Stalinism in Yugoslavia. If Stalinism represents a 'workers' state tradition', Milosevic is surely in that tradition, and adding to it! The idea that Europe and America are now waging a war of imperialist conquest is preposterous! Of course they are policing the Balkans, but...

Tony: They are establishing the right to bomb who they like, where they like, when they like. Capitalist world policemen! Why should we accept that? It will be used against the working class and socialists, too.

Kate: We should not accept it; but to side positively with the Belgrade regime against it is to commit moral and political suicide. An historical analogy: Britain abolished the slave trade - not slavery, but the international trade in slaves - in 1808. On the high seas the powerful British navy enforced the ban against all nations. It was 30 years later before they abolished slavery in their own territory. The cotton industry, the leading technological power of the industrial revolution, continued until the 1860s to depend on US cotton grown by slaves, who were normally worked to death in less than a decade. What replaced the slave trade in the US was special slave-breeding stud farms for the provision of slaves. Certainly Britain used the abolition of the slave trade to assert its incontestable control of the high seas. The British navy would 'rule the waves' until after World War II. And of course they were hypocrites, continuing to have slavery in their prosperous West Indies colonies while suppressing the slave trade. Britain was at war with revolutionary France and, briefly, in 1812, with the revolutionary USA. Yet Britain did suppress the slave trade. Was that good or bad? Me, I'm glad, whatever their motives, that they stopped the slaving ships!

Tony: But NATO is an imperialist power!

Kate: NATO represents advanced capitalism! What specifically is its 'imperialist' goal in the Balkans? Alright, they want stability in the Balkans so that capital can be safe there. If, in pursuit of that, they stop, or even limit, the slaughter and uprooting of the Kosovars, I'll be glad of it. I won't forget who they are and what they represent - and I'll not trust them or preach trust in them. But I'll be glad.

Tony: You'll be glad that European capitalism is strong enough to prevent chaos on its borderlands? That is a conservative policy. Chaos is the midwife of revolution!

Kate: Out of ethnic wars, tribal wars, akin to wars of the Dark Ages, can come nothing but blood and bitterness and working class division. They can help generate revolution? Not our revolution! The working class must make that revolution: working class unity across the national divides is necessary. These wars - and of course, the Serbs in certain areas have been, and may again be, victims too - poison the working class. That is why a programme of consistent democracy is essential to the working class of the whole region: self-determination, a Balkan federation of the peoples, full rights for all the regional minorities, and absolute equality of rights for all. That is a basis for working class unity to fight for socialism!

Linda: You look to European capitalism to create the best conditions for the Balkan working class to advance? In World War 1, defence of 'gallant Serbia' and poor little Belgium were the excuse on one side, and the need to defeat Tsarism on the other: you can't go by the local issues! You must take in world politics. Whatever about the little local issues, the decisive thing is to be defeatist towards our own government and its allies.

Kate: Forget the 'little local issue?' It depends! Do you know that Lenin during World War 1 wrote that if an event like the savagely repressive German occupation of Belgium could be taken in isolation from the fact that, taken as a whole, the war was a war between two imperialist cartels to re-divide the world, then socialists would favour action even by capitalist states to redress the wrong done to the Belgians? Of course, in practice, the German invasion of Belgium and Northern France could not be taken in isolation.

Tony: Exactly! Neither can this.

Kate: So it is a case now of two imperialist cartels whose conflict overshadows the 'little local issue' of destroying the Kosovar people? You side with one of them!

Tony: You are too literal!

Kate: Be as free and unliteral as you like: explain!

Tony: This is NATO self-aggrandisement: that is decisive, not the Kosovars. To focus on arming the Kosovars or independence for Kosova is to play into NATO's hands. As Alex Callinicos said in Socialist Worker, a big Albania will also destabilise the region: 'An Albanian national army, hardened by war and enjoying mass support in refugee camps throughout the Balkans, could threaten the integrity of half a dozen states throughout the region.'

Kate: Well, for all your talk of being the most vehement against everything the big powers do, there you echo the fundamental thread of their policy for the last 11 years: the smaller nations in ex-Yugoslavia should above all settle down, be quiet, not demand too much, and not cause trouble (and Milosevic should not provoke them quite so sorely that trouble becomes unavoidable). And it is, I'm sorry, as imperialistic, as disdainful of the rights of the oppressed peoples, as any argument you will find on any side in this whole affair. So much for your anti-imperialism!

In fact, the reason for your focus on denouncing NATO is not that this is a conflict of two imperialist blocs, a conflict within and by which the local issues are shaped and defined and overshadowed for us. It is that you are always defeatist towards advanced capitalism, whatever the issues. This is a pre-Marx attitude to capitalism - a prehistoric sectarianism that in practice here leads you to support Dark Ages Serbian imperialism!

Tony: You are saying capitalism can be progressive?

Kate: In so far as socialism is objectively possible, and measured against that, capitalism is utterly reactionary. But capitalism possesses the world: it has not stopped developing and not everything it does is reactionary or regressive. In its own exploitative, bureaucratic way it has more or less united Europe. If NATO stops genocide in Kosova, I will be pleased. I won't won't give it credit in advance for the best imaginable outcome of its intervention, or forget its record, or give it my support instead of promoting the 'third camp' of independent working class politics. I will not change my basic assessment of NATO. And only a political idiot or an historical illiterate would tell the Kosovars they can trust NATO not to do a deal with Slobodan Milosevic at their expense.

Linda: So why don't you join those advocating NATO ground troops?

Kate: Because NATO will do what it does according to the perceived needs of the big capitalists and their governments. Socialists should not take responsibility for these decisions, or rely on them. The idea that we can tell the great capitalist powers to act as we, a united working class led by genuine socialists, would act in Kosova is the idea that bourgeois regimes can substitute for the working class, or that the limited and sometimes inadvertent and always twisted 'good things' it does will only happen if we will it, 'call' for it, prefigure it in our slogans. It is a fantasy of directing affairs, rooted in our real weakness. I understand the psychology that calls on the capitalist powers to do what we are too weak to do: it is the same psychology that led so many would-be Trotskyists to develop delusions in the Stalinist parties and bureaucratic states. Watching the agony of the Kosovar people naturally leads some to shout out 'instructions' to the rulers: essentially it is an ineffective cry of protest and, logically, a belief in word magic. It is like the shouts of the mother who from a distance helplessly watches her child stepping out in front of a speeding car. It is a call for saviours from on high. Its only effect is to express our real weakness and add to it a political confusion - about what our role must be and what revolutionary socialist politics is - that will keep us weak. They will not influence events one way or the other - at best they will put a better propagandist gloss on what NATO would do anyway and win some socialists to support NATO. You anti-NATO pro-Serbs are the mirror-image twins of those who call on NATO - two sides of the same coin. You both represent aspects of the disintegration of socialism and of the lack of an independent working class outlook. We must recreate and rebuild a working class socialism against both these currents. We won't do it by calling on NATO - or Stalinist formations - to do what we are too weak to do.

Tony: Being pro-NATO is working class socialism?

Kate: Pro-Serbia now is anti-imperialist?

Tony: Well, actually it is!

Kate: But you didn't protest when I argued that this is not an inter-imperialist war. That this is not a war in which the 'little local issues' cannot guide your orientation. Serbia-Kosova is the issue in this war. The proper critique of NATO is that it is not a reliable tool to stop genocide, and, indeed, that by cynical power-politics over the last 11 or so years, and by incompetence or indifference, it has so far helped Milosevic in his barbarous drive against the Kosovars.

Tony: It does not have to be an inter-imperialist war. It is an imperialist war. NATO is imperialism. The main enemy is at home. We must be defeatists.

Kate: And never mind the Kosovars?

Tony: They have virtually disappeared anyway as an entity. To go on about 'Independence for Kosova' is to make propaganda for NATO's war effort.

Kate: But this is a war between two imperialisms.

Tony: Backward Serbia is an imperialist state? It is the equal of the NATO powers? You need to say that to excuse your pro-NATO stand! When are you going to join up and do your bit for 'gallant little Kosova'?

Kate: No, they are not equal: but Serbia is a primitive and backward ethno-imperialist state. It does not operate by the export of capital but by the export of people; not by the seizure of colonies and peoples for exploitation but by the seizure of territory to be cleared of its population and 'planted' with Serbs. This is imperialism, too. This was the general pattern of Russian imperialism in the 19th century and up to 1917.

Before the Second World War Trotsky regarded Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as imperialist states because within them Czechs and Serbs oppressed a number of national minorities. Imperialism in history is not just monopoly capitalism or Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism. There are many others. History knows many different forms of imperialism. Serb imperialism is Dark Ages imperialism. It is reactionary compared to advanced capitalism! That is one reason why the pro-Serb left is absurd, as well as disgracefully indifferent to the Kosovars.

Tony: So you support the 'progressive' imperialism against the 'Dark Ages imperialism'?

Kate: No, but I don't oppose western imperialism by supporting the Dark Ages imperialism. I'm not a negative fetishist. I don't 'defend' Milosevic and his imperialism against NATO. I had thought your SWP support for Saddam Hussein was the lowest you could go: but even the Butcher Saddam doesn't quite measure up to the purposefully and relentlessly genocidal Slobodan Milosevic.

Tony: I'd thought that your support of Israel against the Arabs was the lowest you could go: I too was wrong.

Kate: We support the Palestinian Arabs' right to a fully independent state, side by side with Israel. I find an interesting contrast between your attitude to the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews on one side and to the Kosovars on the other. Of two million Kosovars, well over a million have been killed or driven out. The process continues. You don't seem too bothered. Your leaders - the unspeakable Callinicos at the SWP's National Union of Teachers Conference fringe meeting, for example - publicly encourage their audience to treat the truth about the fate of the Kosovars as imperialist war propaganda.

Fifty years ago, five Arab states invaded the Jewish territory, Israel. Some of them were officered by British soldiers. All of them were clients of Britain, carrying out British policy. The Israelis beat them back, and against all the odds - including a British and American embargo on arms for the Israelis - won. If the Jews had lost they would have been driven out or killed or forced to accept a restored British protectorate. In the course of the war 700,000 Arabs were driven out or fled; not many fewer Jews were soon driven to Israel out of the Arab countries. We say: two states in Palestine. You are to this day prepared to support even a Saddam Hussein if he will wipe out the Jewish state. You take your moral stand on the fate of the Palestinians who were expelled or who fled, and their descendants. Yet the Kosovars - who are still being killed and driven out even as we speak - seem to mean nothing to you. And you take offence when we say you have a specifically hostile attitude to the Jews!

Everything is arbitrary, subjective, governed by calculations of organisational advantage - when not subject to the operation of obscure 'principles' rooted not in politics but in Tony Cliff's psyche!

Tony: Tony Cliff at least is not on the side of the British Government!

Kate: Neither am I. I am on the side of independent working class politics: consistent democracy, working class unity across the national and communal divides - and socialism.

Tony: The central slogan has to be 'Stop the War'/'Stop the Bombing'. That's the way to build a movement against the Government and NATO.

Kate: No. The central slogan has to come from our independent democratic-socialist immediate programmatic position and our working class historical perspective: consistent democracy - 'Independence for Kosova' and the slogans that express it concretely, 'Yugoslav army out of Kosova; Arm the Kosovars.'

Tony: And NATO?

Kate: 'No trust in NATO bombs or troops'. That politically is what needs to be said: we can't be armchair generals about the details; we should not make pro-Serb state propaganda.

Tony: You have to be concrete.

Kate: Yes! The problem with your slogans is that they ignore the real central question, the Kosovars; you reflect Serb state propaganda and make pro-Serb state propaganda. You judge the war on its details not on its politics. Marxists don't orientate according to who fired the first shot or on specific military details, but on the politics of the war. We would not let such 'details' as incidental war atrocities decide us against Serbia if the overall political character of the war were different. Demands for or against specific military actions can easily become foolish amateur generalship and they can also be politically disorientating. We do not derive our attitude from this or that incident or tactic on either side, but from an overall assessment of the politics of the situation. Any support or appearance of support for genocidal Serb imperialism should be ruled out. The absence in your slogans and propaganda of any defence of the Kosovars is the greatest obscenity on the 'left' since the Stalinists whipped up widespread support for the Moscow Trials!

Tony: Are you against the NATO bombing of Serbia?

Kate: Bombing, despite what they claim, is a crude weapon. Inevitably innocent Serbs will suffer and die. Of course we are against the bombing! Of course we are against war. But we are, before anything else, against Yugoslav troops in Kosova. To go on as you do against NATO bombing and not to call for Yugoslav troops out of Kosova is crude pro-Serbian state propaganda. If it is 'anti-imperialism', it is grotesquely selective anti-imperialism. If it is a protest against the general horrors of war, again it is grotesquely selective, because of your silence about the greatest horrors here. Selective anti-imperialism, selective pacifism, all justified by catchpenny 'build-a-broad-movement' opportunism - that's not socialism!

Tony: You echo the bourgeoisie!

Kate: To say the opposite of what they say, always - that is the rule of working class politics? Independent judgement according to our programme and perspectives - that is our rule. In the most profound and self-destructive sense you 'echo' them. In politics you are them, turned inside out!

Workers' Liberty #55