Social chauvinism

Arising from an ongoing internet discussion on the UK Left Network (, Owen Jones takes on the CPGB's position on Yugoslavia

The sparks of the Yugoslav revolution, it seems, have once more re-ignited the debate over the questions arising from the 1999 imperialist onslaught. Perhaps many comrades will find it a fruitless exercise to continually rehash the old arguments that so divided revolutionaries during the bombing. However, these are general questions of the utmost importance about the positions we as Marxists should take towards our imperialist bourgeoisie when 'our boys' are in action.

The position of the CPGB, as voiced through its organ, was of revolutionary defeatism. As any student of Lenin will know, the leader of the Bolsheviks himself declared this slogan with the outbreak of inter-imperialist war in Europe in 1914. In effect, it called for the imperialist war to be transformed into a civil war - for the guns to be turned away from the trenches and on to the ruling classes of Europe. This slogan was a bitter pill for many Russian revolutionaries to swallow, including Bolsheviks, but was vindicated by the revolutionary events of 1917-19, particularly in Russia and Germany.

So why indeed would I brand the CPGB's use of Lenin's slogan, of 'revolutionary defeatism', as regards the Nato war against Yugoslavia, by another term that haunted Bolshie circles during World War I - social-chauvinism; or in other words, a capitulation to imperialism? For a quite simple reason - the Nato war against Yugoslavia was not one between imperialist states as a culmination of inter-imperialist rivalries. It was an armed bombardment, rather than a war, directed by an armada of imperialist states against a semi-colony, Yugoslavia.

Comrade Mark Fischer, in his polemic against "rotten politics" as regards military blocs, twice makes an absurd analogy between the Milosevic regime and the Kaiser autocracy in Germany during World War I (Weekly Worker October 12). This is intended to demonstrate that those who called for the military defence of Yugoslavia from imperialist attack are capitulating to the Serbian bourgeoisie as the social-chauvinists did to that of Germany those decades ago, when a Marxist should have called for the revolutionary defeat of both sides, as Lenin called for as regards Russia and Germany.

Yet the underlying reason for such a slogan was that countries such as Britain, Germany, Russia, France and America were imperialist powers that oppressed the entire world. Lenin described the war as one between slave-owners to divide up and grab more of the loot. Indeed, the Entente slogans were of 'liberty', 'democracy' and of fighting against giant countries which trampled over the rights of small ones (such as Belgium), even when they themselves enslaved hundreds of millions in the colonies. In other words, the working class had no interest in the victory of any of the imperialists, and instead should turn the guns aimed at their fellow workers against the ruling classes who had plunged the world into such an horrific war over loot.

Of course, comrade Mark Fischer could cry, I am imprisoned in a time warp to use such arguments. The colonial land empires are gone. Germany and America have no colonies. Granted - imperialism has been forced to change its form following the struggle of the colonial peoples against their enslavement. Instead, the imperialist powers now own semi-colonies, which cover the planet - in Latin America, Africa, Asia and now the former Stalinist bloc (not least Russia, a country savagely raped by imperialism). The demise of Stalinism served to considerably strengthen imperialism to a degree not seen for decades.

Perhaps one way to characterise the new movement that has emerged against 'global capitalism' is as a protest against the exploitation of the semi-colonies by the imperialist powers, focusing their fury on organisations whose existence is to facilitate the domination of western capital, such as the IMF and World Bank. Apparently these young protesters have a much better grasp of imperialism than do the CPGB, who seem to believe it died altogether when the colonial form disintegrated.

The finance capital of America in particular, but also of other imperialist countries such as Britain, Germany and France, oppresses the entire world. The 1990s in particular saw a massive, concerted imperialist attack on the semi-colonies, forcing them to open their markets to western capital through mass privatisation, resulting in huge unemployment and impoverishment, and to reverse many of the gains the working class had won using IMF austerity packages (e.g., education, healthcare, the 'welfare state', etc). Even not so red Ken Livingstone made the point earlier this year that more people die each year as a result of international capitalism (aka imperialism) than died in the holocaust. An apt enough description of the murderous oppression the imperialist countries inflict on the entire world.

Yugoslavia, meanwhile, is not an imperialist power. Its finance capital does not oppress the entire world. It has no semi-colonies in Africa, Latin America or Asia. Put simply, it is the meagre remains of a country that imperialism had a direct hand in destroying - not least German imperialism. It has been economically besieged for a decade by the west. In other words, the classic example of a semi-colony. For this reason, the war in 1999 was not one between robber barons, but rather an armada of murderous robbers bombing a semi-colony under the banner of humanitarianism.

Many comrades on reading this will perhaps be outraged by my analysis of Yugoslavia because of the national oppression it committed within its borders. Clearly its semi-colonial character does not render it incapable of what was seen throughout the 1990s in Kosovo, culminating in a brutal counterinsurgency operation which triggered civil war in 1998, and a savage attempt to suppress the right of Kosovar national self-determination (similarly the former Abyssinia oppressed Eritrea when under the onslaught of Italian imperialism). This right we as Marxists uphold, though not at the expense of opposing our robber barons - our own imperialist bourgeoisie.

The refusal of the CPGB to militarily defend Yugoslavia has more to do with moralism than with a scientific basis. As the editions of the Weekly Worker during the bombing demonstrate, they succumbed to the outrageous claims of imperialist propaganda and provided its readers with a weekly diet of the 'genocide' occurring in Kosovo at the hands of Yugoslav military forces, a diet that its readers could have had daily elsewhere if they so desired by reading the Daily Mail (meanwhile, they remain silent about the permanent expulsion of 300,000 non-Albanians by their friend, the KLA). That this genocide has since been proven to be an elaborate falsification by Nato's propagandists is probably irrelevant, but in the most simple of terms, the CPGB comrades were morally outraged at the civil war in Kosovo and felt that military defence would be collaboration with a genocidal regime.

Which brings us back to the 1930s, when Italian imperialism invaded Abyssinia. The centrist leadership of the Independent Labour Party found itself under attack by Leon Trotsky when it refused to defend Abyssinia on the basis that the war being played out was between two dictators, Mussolini and the Abyssinian emperor. They were correct that the Abyssinian regime was an absolutist monarchy presiding over a prison house of nations, severely oppressing the Eritreans. But the ABC of Leninism means that we unreservedly defend an oppressed nation from imperialist attack, regardless of the political character of its regime. Could it be argued that Trotsky's military defence of Abyssinia meant that he was opposed to a revolution against the autocracy by its workers and peasants?

What made the CPGB's slogan even more absurd, of course, was that the onslaught against Yugoslavia in 1999 was not actually a war, but rather bombing raids by an armada of nations facing no attack. Bombs were being dropped thousands of metres from the ground, and the only shots being fired against the aggressor countries were anti-aircraft fire that only a couple or so times hit a plane. Two Nato soldiers died in the whole war, and that was an accident when testing out helicopters in Albania. This was not a case of hand-to-hand combat, or of Yugoslavia fighting back against the imperialist countries. To call for turning the guns against one's own ruling class in the Nato countries was a meaningless abstraction: there was no question of the war being any sort of midwife for revolution in the west.

What further makes the CPGB's slogan of revolutionary defeatism a social-chauvinist fudge is that they fully celebrate Yugoslavia's defeat at the hands of imperialism because it supposedly precipitated revolution. However, they warn of the catastrophe that would have occurred had Nato lost - the logic of which leads to the conclusion that the CPGB supports the 'revolutionary midwife' Nato against "Serbian chauvinism" - as comrade Darrell Goodliffe of the CPGB explained on the UK Left Network email list.

Comrade Darrell claims it would have caused a "strengthening of illusions" in Serbian chauvinism, which would "not only ... have increased the misery and suffering of the Kosovars, but of the Serbian working class", and then lapses into absurd philosophical idealism by arguing that the Nato countries' proletariat "could be led to the conclusion that chauvinism works: after all it has inflicted a defeat on the mighty Nato". According to this abandonment of materialist analysis, a victory of Palestinian "chauvinism", for example, would therefore be disastrous since it would only strength Israeli chauvinism!

In fact, a victory for a ruling class in war always strengthens their position at home, and, au contraire to Darrell's arguments, increases chauvinism. The 1982 Malvinas war was the most striking example, whose British imperialist victory against Argentina was a catastrophe for the workers' movement, tying the hands of the working class with chauvinism and so allowing Thatcher's regime to continue its offensive.

The summary of comrade Fischer's position is made when he proudly claims that, "The CPGB calls for the revolutionary defeat of both sides." As though an armada of aggressor imperialist states can be equated with a besieged semi-colony! Such a slogan would only have been correct in the case of a war between two imperialist - or robber baron - states, such as Germany and France, which oppress the entire world.

It is also perhaps surprising that the CPGB take the events of October as a vindication of their misquoted slogan. Did it signify the conversion of an imperialist war into a civil war? No, since Serbia is not an imperialist state, and a civil war implies a struggle between the classes for the state itself. And indeed the war in which a "revolutionary defeat" is supposed to have taken place ended over a year ago.

Furthermore, the CPGB's celebration of the Yugoslav revolution should be put into context. This uprising did provide real opportunities. The working class rose in their thousands, gave birth to strike committees and seized the means of production. However, the new regime that was catapulted into power can receive no support from Marxists, being an utterly reactionary bourgeois government with a programme of mass privatisation to open up Serbia's markets to western capital, which inevitably will impoverish workers and peasants alike. The CPGB does not appear to be calling for the working class to break from this regime and seize power, and instead is apparently providing political support for Kostunica's new regime.

Unfortunately, to conclude, it is not just on Yugoslavia that the CPGB have a reactionary position, but on other questions ranging from Zimbabwe to Ireland. Reformist and centrist factions - for example, the Bennites - had politically healthier positions on all such questions than the subjectively revolutionary CPGB. Such an argument has led to myself being denounced as reformist - then so was Lenin when he savaged the German and Russian 'Marxist' social-chauvinists whilst praising the struggle of the reformist ILP in Britain against the war, even when recognising it was not on a Marxist basis.

Perhaps the politics of the CPGB are really more rotten than mine?