SWP and the Balkans

Deserting the oppressed

Communists are revolutionary democrats. We are also anti-imperialists. Strangely enough, we in the CPGB do not think there is anything contradictory or conflictual about these statements. Quite the opposite. As Leninists the fight for consistent democracy constitutes the pulse of our communist morality and - crucially - our communist programme. Far from being an eccentricity of the CPGB, this approach is in the tradition of classical Marxism.

However, in following it, the CPGB seems to find itself part of a small minority of the currently constituted left. For one reason or another, the left seems to think a commitment to 'anti-imperialism' gives you carte blanche to junk the struggle for democracy. Hence we are left with an 'anti-imperialism' which has being robbed of its emancipatory content. Even more monstrously, in the pages of some left papers we see 'anti-imperialism' actually becoming an apologia for the violence of the oppressors. Leninism is turned into its opposite.

March 25 saw the first anniversary of Nato's bombing campaign in the Balkans. This prompted a series of retrospective - mainly sorrowful - articles in the bourgeois press about the lessons of the war. For communists the lessons are crystal clear. Yet in the name of anti-imperialism the 'orthodox Trotskyists' of the International Bolshevik Tendency and the Spartacist League, the Scargillite Socialist Labour Party, the 'official communists' of the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star and the Labour lefts were all united in agreement ... that the democratic rights of the violently oppressed Kosovar ethnic Albanians did not count for a row of beans. Defending their rights became too 'complicated' and simply disappeared from the equation, when it came to opposing Nato and the wider interests of the United States-European Union bourgeoisies.

We also have to add the name of the state capitalist Socialist Workers Party to this unholy alliance of 'anti-imperialists'. During the build-up to Nato's assault on the rump Yugoslavia (which saw up to 250,000 ethnic Albanians driven from their homes at gunpoint by the Yugoslavian army and its Serbian paramilitary accomplices in Kosova) the SWP preached its routine economistic social-pacifism - 'Albanian and Serbian workers unite against the bosses'. The Milosevic regime was of course ritually denounced. Yes, the Kosovar Albanians have been treated appallingly and should have the right to exercise self-determination (ie, independence). How could you say otherwise?

But the SWP's formal commitment to the struggle for Kosovar democratic rights turned to dust as soon as Nato bombs started to hit Serbia. Time to change the story a bit. Hobnobbing with bourgeois pacifists (like former CND chairperson and ex-monseigneur Bruce Kent) and rank Serbian chauvinists, the SWP peddled the slogans, 'Stop the war - stop the bombings' and 'Nato out the Balkans' - unlike the CPGB, there were no calls from the SWP for Serbia to get out of Kosova (or Kosovo, as the SWP and most on the left insist on calling it like official Belgrade spokespersons). In such esteemed company it was considered extremely distasteful to address the horrific plight of the Kosovars by raising concrete political demands and slogans such as 'Independence for Kosova'. This SWP-pacifist-Stalinite milieu generated a spontaneous 'anti-imperialism' which neatly dovetailed with the war aims and propaganda of the Serbian state. As an organisation the SWP deserted the oppressed once the Nato campaign began, all to make the pacifists and the Serbian chauvinists feel more comfortable - not to mention the SWP's half-educated members and supporters.

In recent issues of Socialist Worker and Socialist Review comrade Alex Callinicos has penned two articles which seek to justify the organisation's position on last year's war in the Balkans. Both of them near stomach-churning in their capitulation to anti-Albanian chauvinism. Both of them dishonest to the core.

Comrade Callinicos is indecently cock-a-hoop at the semi-self-critical articles that have appeared in liberal papers like The Guardian and The Observer, which are troubled by the idea that the Nato campaign may have been a less than glorious success. Jubilantly, the comrade crows: "Now The Guardian has accepted, as anti-war campaigners argued from the start, that the refugee crisis was a consequence of the bombing" (my emphasis Socialist Worker March 25). We are also told that the "mass expulsions of Kosovan Albanians" was "in fact precipitated" by Nato's bombing campaign (Socialist Review April).

This is a slippery slope - you might as well argue that the holocaust was simply "a consequence" of the Allied war effort in Europe during World War II. The mass exodus of the Kosovar people was the result of the deliberately planned and executed pogrom being directed against them from Belgrade. In reality Nato's military strikes had the effect of escalating the Serbian terror campaign against the ethnic Albanians as a by-product - Kosovar Albanians form at least 90% of the Kosovar population. To argue or imply like Callinicos that Nato was somehow directly responsible for the Albanian refugee crisis is almost worthy of a Goebbels or Stalin.

It is also a plain fact that at the start of the Nato campaign the overwhelming majority of Kosovars looked towards Nato - and Tony Blair in particular - as their would-be saviours from Serbian oppression. Why should socialists and communists be afraid to tell the truth? It in no way implies that we support or encourage the illusion that Nato was conducting a 'humanitarian' or 'progressive' war in the Balkans. Far from it. It just means that communists have a connection with objective reality, as opposed to the ideological - and infantile - fantasy world of the SWP where 'my enemy's enemy is my (sort of) friend'.

For Alex Callinicos the Kosova Liberation Army are just a bunch of nationalists who have no socialist programme. Probably just a bunch of gangsters and drug-runners. Almost certainly mere stooges of western imperialism. Comrade Callinicos even tells us that "tiny rural Kosovo has a murder rate comparable to Los Angeles" (Socialist Worker March 25) - all thanks, we have to assume, to the KLA and Albanian gangsterism. (In the same way that the extraordinary high crime rate in South Africa is purely attributable to the ANC government and not the poisonous legacy of apartheid, one presumes.)

Tony Benn would seem to agree. He appears - alongside Bruce Kent and Rae Street of CND - in the same issue of Socialist Review to hammer home the anti-KLA message. After telling us that "it is now clear" that one of the "real" purposes of the war was "to establish western control of the Balkans because of the oil", Benn goes on to inform us that, "We now realise that the KLA (once described in Washington as a terrorist organisation) is working hand in glove with K-For to carry out the ethnic cleansing of Serbs who are being driven back into Yugoslavia" (April). It is hard not to conclude from Benn's comments that perhaps the Milosevic regime had a point when it claimed it was engaged in a "war against terrorism" and "fascist Nato" (as the more excitable Serbists and pro-Serb defencists on the left put it). See how much trouble the KLA and unruly Albanians in general have caused over the last year, especially in areas like Mitrovice (one could easily imagine Vladimir Putin saying the same thing about the Chechens).

Worryingly, comrade Callinicos seems to have been infected by similar conspiracy theories. We are not a million miles away from the undiluted Serbian chauvinistic views of professor Darko Nadic, who writes in a letter to the Morning Star that the Serbian half of Mitrovice is "a ghetto in Albanian terrorist territory" and "all that is left in Kosovo is the Albanian mafia" (April 1).

It goes without saying that nowhere in Socialist Worker or Socialist Review does comrade Callinicos raise the demand for Kosovar self-determination and full independence (from both Yugoslavia and K-For). But his argumentation gets worse. The crime perpetuated against the entire Kosovar Albanian people is airbrushed out of history. A year is certainly a very long time in SWP politics. Callinicos comments in Socialist Worker on how "Nato and its apologists sought to whip up an atmosphere of pro-war hysteria by claiming that full-scale genocide was underway ... In fact, as The Guardian now acknowledges, it seems the Serb forces killed several thousand Albanians last spring, not tens of thousands. This was a barbarous atrocity, but not the holocaust."

Oh well, the Serb terror was not so bad then. Of course the statistics quoted by Callinicos are in all probability accurate. For communists and democrats this is hardly the point though (how come the SWP does not make a big thing out of the fact that 'only' 14 Irish people were murdered by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday?). The fact that a mere "barbarous atrocity", not "the holocaust", was inflicted on the Kosovar people does not therefore invalidate their democratic right to self-determination. However, in comrade Callinicos's hands the 'holocaust denial' line is used in a most immoral fashion. It absolves the SWP of any need to act like Leninists and make its organisation a tribune of the oppressed (ie, the Kosovar Albanians). Instead the organisation resorts to wimpish Church of England-style sermons - 'Serbs have suffered too', and 'All violence is terrible, you know'. Under the welter of economistic abstractions, the SWP studiously ignores the specificity of Kosovar Albanian oppression.

Callinicos's one-sided analysis is relentless. He states in Socialist Worker that The Guardian et al "ignore the plight of the province's [ie, Kosova - DH] Serbian minority. K-For, the Nato occupation force, has presided over the expulsion of 230,000 Serbs from Kosovo. The pro-war liberals who fell in love with 'humanitarian intervention' last year have to explain why this form of ethnic cleansing is any different from that practised against the Albanians." He adds: "The Serbs' flight reflects the stranglehold increasingly exercised over the province by the Albanian nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA was supposed to have disbanded after the war, but 5,000 ex-guerrillas have joined the armed Kosovo Protection Corps (TMK)."

In Socialist Review - much to the pleasure no doubt of Benn and Stalinites everywhere - Callinicos cannot resist saying TMK stands for "Tomorrow's Masters of Kosovo" and remarking that ex-KLA "thugs" are now working for the UN administration in Kosova. It would be bad enough if Callinicos wanted his readers to draw an equivalence between the violence of the KLA and the violence of the Serbian state and its agents. But the whole tenor of Callinicos's articles is that the forces represented by the KLA/TMK are far worse than the regime in Belgrade, which is, after all, primarily a victim.

What we have with comrade Callinicos - and others on the left - is narrow 'anti-KLAism' and 'anti-Natoism' masquerading as anti-imperialism. By a wonderful irony, this leads him to echo the worries and concerns of US imperialism about the whole Balkans situation. KLA and ex-KLA fighters have the potential to 'destabilise' the entire region. Like US imperialism, the SWP is alarmed by this idea - god forbid that state boundaries in the Balkans be challenged or threatened. Comrade Callinicos writes: "The KLA is behind a growing crisis in eastern Kosovo. Seventy thousand Albanians live across the border in southern Serbia's Presevo valley. The area has seen increasingly serious fighting in recent months between Serbian paramilitary police and Albanian guerrillas" (Socialist Worker March 25).

Spoken like a good bourgeois statesman, even to the point where comrade Callinicos neutrally informs us in the same article: "On a visit to eastern Kosovo last week US assistant secretary of state James Rubin warned the KLA to stay out of Serbia. The next day US troops launched a series of raids along the border to seize arms caches. A senior Pentagon official commented, 'We have now fired the first shots at the Albanian insurgents and insurgents have a tendency to carry a grudge. If they come to see us as an enemy then the raid will be seen as a turning point'."

Communists can find a significant truth in these comments - even if comrade Callinicos is too blinded by social-pacifistic and 'anti-Natoist' prejudices to see it himself. Imperialism intervened in the Balkans last year precisely to prevent the region spiralling out of control - its control. Imposing imperialist stability and order was the name of the game - as was holding the rump Yugoslavian entity together. US and British imperialism in particular made more than clear its opposition to Kosovar independence - rightfully fearing that by recognising the democratic rights of the Kosovar people this would act as the green light to all the other oppressed and disgruntled peoples and groups in the Balkans (not least the Kosovars' fellow ethnic Albanians in Montenegro and Macedonia). Robin Cook was adamant that Nato would not act as "the KLA's airforce".

Contrary to the paranoid-filled imaginations of Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, 'official communism' and significant sections of 'orthodox' Trotskyism, the Nato bombing campaign was not part of a dastardly plot to dismember Yugoslavia and then "privatise it" (as Ian Morrison absurdly claims in the Morning Star, March 25) - let alone an old-fashioned colonial scramble for an imaginary 'oil route' via Kosova. Frankly, such talk is nothing but fantasy.

Imperialism fought the Balkans war to keep Kosova within the rump Yugoslavia as a Nato protectorate, hoping thus to ensure stability - and to fly the flag for the New World Order. Unsurprisingly, the Nato-organised war against the Milosevic regime in Belgrade was portrayed as a re-run of World War II. (Which makes it doubly ironic that Alex Callinicos in Socialist Review castigates the liberal media for encouraging "metropolitan intellectuals" to see Milosevic as "a demonic, Hitler-like figure" - this coming from an organisation that organised its own hysterical demonstrations, etc, saying, 'Haider is Hitler'.)

Comrade Callinicos concludes his Socialist Worker piece by asking, "So when are the pro-war liberals going to admit they were wrong?" For communists this only begs the real question: when is the SWP going to dump its one-sided 'anti-imperialism' and become the democratic champion of all the oppressed and exploited?

Danny Hammill