Anti-democratic 'anti-imperialism'

Though the work of an individual comrade not affiliated with any group, Owen Jones's recent polemic against the CPGB's position of revolutionary defeatism on both sides in the 1999 Kosova war is an ample illustration of the complete bankruptcy of the outlook of some of the more 'traditional Trotskyist' currents on the far left (Weekly Worker November 2).

Owen's critique reflects a complete inability to formulate a verifiable and concrete analysis of the world we actually live in today, a tendency to substitute biblical quotations from supposedly infallible 'authorities' for such analysis, and frankly rose-tinted illusions in forces that are light-years away from revolutionary politics. Of course, Owen is a young comrade whose positions, however wrong and reactionary in parts, should not be viewed as being set in stone. They do however serve to illustrate several overlapping political points that have a more general relevance.

Comrade Jones's view of imperialism is contradictory. He is one of a diminishing band who, in the face of the realities of the contemporary post-colonial world, persist in retailing sanctified quotations from the communists of the early 20th century advocating support of the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations subjugated by the European colonial empires, and of those of semi-colonial nations that existed in the crevices between those empires, in wars that had a revolutionary-democratic (anti-imperialist) content against the colonial powers. These comrades invoke such holy quotations in the manner of high priests of some kind of 'Marxist' religion, in order to ward off the observation that wars waged today (ostensibly against 'imperialism') by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic have no such revolutionary-democratic content, but rather the opposite.

Owen acknowledges, somewhat reluctantly, that, unlike in the earlier part of the 20th century, advanced, imperialist-capitalist states today do not, apart from exceptional cases, exercise power through the occupation of colonies by gubernatorships, but rather dominate the world in a very different way - through their economic might. One would think that this rather major change would play some important role in determining what the attitude of revolutionaries should be towards wars such as the one between Nato and Yugoslavia in 1999, where an imperialist power, or even several, engage in a war against a smaller bourgeois state. The fact that the conflict over Kosova, for example, also involved a massive question of oppression of a subject people by the smaller power concerned is not a little significant.

It apparently makes no difference to comrade Jones and co whether their right to exist as a separate nation-state is threatened, or not threatened. The duty of Serbian workers, for comrade Jones, is to support their 'own' government in war against the Nato powers even when Milosevic was engaged in massive and naked oppression of another people, forcing them to leave their country and stealing their land.

In reality, for a Serbian worker to support his or her own government in a war not aimed primarily at the defence of Serbia's own right to state independence, but rather to oppress and destroy another people, is to advocate precisely what comrade Jones bizarrely accuses the CPGB of: social chauvinism. And pretty grotesque chauvinism at that - without much of the 'social' about it, given the apartheid-like tyranny that existed in Kosova under the rule of Milosevic for 11 years.

Owen Jones' historical analogies are meaningless, and display a Jesuitical view of politics: for instance, his analogy between the 1999 Kosova war and the annexation by Mussolini's Italy of the African state of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935. Everyone knew that from day one of Mussolini's military action against Abyssinia, Italian imperialism was directly aiming to seize for itself an African colonial empire, which it duly did. Leon Trotsky rightly criticised the leadership of the Independent Labour Party for a mixture of ultra-leftism and muddle-headed pacifism (not for "social chauvinism"!), in refusing to support the resistance of emperor Haile Selassie's regime against imperialist invasion.

The ILP leaders could not have been accused of capitulating to their 'own' bourgeoisie in refusing to take a side against Mussolini's forces - its 'own' bourgeoisie was one of the initiators of economic sanctions against Italy and some elements, including among the official Labour Party bureaucracy, were agitating for military action against Mussolini, prefiguring what was to happen in World War II.

The real point Trotsky was making, quite correctly, against the ILP was that an ultra-left and dismissive attitude to struggles for democracy and against colonial rule was wrong, irrespective of the shifting alliances between and among imperialist powers. Abyssinian independence itself was what was at stake in the war between Mussolini's Italy and Selassie's Abyssinia. In other words, the ILP was guilty of the same kind of dismissive attitude towards a democratic question that informs the objectively anti-democratic stance of 'orthodox' Trotskyists like Owen Jones today, though its reasons were somewhat different.

James Robertson, the leader of the Spartacists, once coined a very revealing phrase to describe the process of development of 'theory' among orthodox Trotskyists. He stated that "programme generates theory". Translated into plain English, this means that one's understanding of "theory" (i.e., of what actually happens in the world) is determined by "programme" (i.e., the political aims of the person or persons engaged in formulating the "theory"). Owen provides a fine illustration of this unintentionally graphic description of the process of falsifying reality to bring it into line with dogma and prejudice, with his attempt to drag in the question of Amharic oppression of the minority people of Eritrea (and what about Tigray?) into the equation of Mussolini's 1935 Abyssinian conquest, making a bizarre and tendentious case that there is some similarity with the recent Kosova war. A case of wishful thinking - many states of the colonial world had incipient national questions that were only able to come to the fore, for good or ill, long after freedom from colonial rule.

One only has to think of the many semi- or quasi-national groupings of India, whose distinctive claims are still only just beginning to become a question of first-rate importance for revolutionary strategy in India, or indeed the underdeveloped national consciousness of the peoples of formerly Soviet Central Asia. In the case of India, such antagonisms only burst into the light of day decades after independence. Similarly in Africa in the era of European colonialism - the realities of colonial oppression were such that only specialists would have been aware of the distinctive cultures of the peoples of such African states and the potential that existed for conflict in the future.

The struggle against colonial rule tended to have a unifying effect on such peoples because of a shared racial and national oppression at the hands of the colonialists, and it is classic for such antagonisms only to come to the fore long after independence. In Kosova, however, you had a long-standing, fully developed national and ethnic antagonism and rule of one people (the Serbs) over another people (the Albanians) that had much more in common with the relationship between the European colonialists and their subject peoples than the relationship between one oppressed colonial people and another.

It is this that Owen Jones is systematically blind to - so much so that earlier he argued that the Greater Serbian chauvinist and ultra-nationalist movement that Milosevic led and which smashed Kosovar autonomy in Yugoslavia in 1989 was a progressive movement against 'oppression'. He has now repudiated this - but much, indeed most, of the reasoning that he used in order to arrive at this reactionary position remains intact in his thinking - particularly political softness on pan-Slavic forms of 'anti-imperialist' Russian and Serbian nationalism and their tendency to demonise whole subject and formerly subject peoples as being agencies of imperialism.

More interesting than Owen's own personal illusions, however, is the light that is thrown by the kind of issues he raises on more general problems of the left. Owen's own contribution, apart from being a direct reply to comrade Mark Fischer's original article, 'Rotten politics and military blocs' (Weekly Worker October 12), was very much shaped by a discussion on the UK Left Network internet list in the aftermath of the political revolution that overthrew the regime of Slobodan Milosevic at the beginning of October. The ascent to power, on the backs of the masses and to some extent at their behest, of the moderately nationalist, pro-western bourgeois-democratic regime of Vojislav Kostunica produced a-wailing and a-weeping from various hard-line Stalinists and also ultra-orthodox Trotskyists (particularly, though not exclusively, those from the Spartacist tradition).

In one particularly grotesque case, a comrade from the Far East took to signing his name with "anti-democratic greetings" in response to our polemics about the Serbian uprising. One wonders what his idol, comrade Trotsky, would have said about that. Slightly more coherently, Liz Hoskings, who is still something of a regular contributor to our letters page, was vocal in bewailing the 'pro-imperialist' uprising in Belgrade. Since her comrades of the International Bolshevik Tendency (the IBT is a more-Spart-than-the-Sparts split from the Spartacist League, otherwise known as the International Communist League) have yet to produce a written statement on the events in Serbia well over a month later, perhaps reflecting some sort of demoralisation or internal disarray, her musings on the list will have to do in lieu of such a statement.

What is interesting is not so much her reiteration of many of Owen's points about the "pro-imperialism" and "social chauvinism" of the CPGB. More interesting is the various theoretical subterfuges she gives to justify her own somewhat shamefaced political defence of Milosevic. Her accusations that those on the left who welcomed the masses' overthrow of Milosevic were in some way guilty of idealising or supporting the overall political programme of the Kostunica-led opposition are of course kindergarten accusations: sub-Spartacism, insulting to the intelligence and hardly worth any attention at all. But, in justifying her own organisation's support for Milosevic's war, and her hostility to the movement that overthrew Milosevic, she made a couple of points that illustrate how the visceral affinity for Stalinism that is deeply embedded in the tradition she has now conjoined as a novice actually leads to the debasement of even those approximately correct insights the same tradition has generated at times.

Like many of the tendencies on the left, despite their usually bizarre sectarianism, ultra-orthodox Trotskyists, including even the Spartacists, were able to generate some insights and elements that, in however one-sided a manner, are useful and a component of what is necessary to recreate a genuine communist tradition. For instance, on the national question, their insights, despite considerable flaws, were sometimes quite penetrating, particularly in a number of cases where complex and intractable national conflicts existed, such as Ireland and the Middle East.

Returning to the debate on the UK Left Network, the question of self-determination figured strongly, as it has in all debates over the question of Kosova from the beginning of the 1999 war. The various fragmentary sects and individuals that make up the disintegrating Trotskyist and Stalinist movements have to indulge in the most shameless distortion of reality to make out that the 1999 war was about self-determination for Serbia. Since obviously the weakening of Milosevic's regime through its defeat in war led directly to the opportunity for its overthrow though mass action, they must either deny any connection between the two events (as Owen Jones struggles valiantly, but vainly, to do) or assert that the Milosevic regime was simply the victim of an imperialist plot.

This leads directly to the most basic revisions of elementary Marxism, which is not difficult of course for the Stalinist elements, who have always played fast and loose with Marxist categories - one of the most characteristic aspects of their existence. The Trotskyist grouplets have more problems with this, since a certain pride in a defence of Marxist orthodoxy is more rooted in their tradition. The manner in which 'orthodox' Trotskyist traditions can be transformed into their opposite is shown by the contrast between elementary Leninist positions argued by them when the events that caused their revision were absent, and what they write now.

It is elementary that the right to self-determination must entail the demand for a nation to have the possibility of forming its own politically independent state. No more, no less. Any conception that that state must be immune from outside influences, any conception that such a state can or must be economically independent, is a complete illusion, and simply a form of nationalism. That is the Leninist conception, and was indeed once expressed quite eloquently by the Spartacists themselves:

"... the right to self-determination means simply the right to establish a separate state, the right to secede. We reject the notion that it means 'freedom from all outside interference and control' or entails economic independence. In the general sense, the right to self-determination is unconditional, independent of the state that emerges or its leadership" ('Theses on Ireland' Spartacist No24, autumn 1977).

Contrast this succinct definition of the right to self-determination with Liz Hoskings's rather shallow apologia for pro-Milosevic red-brown nationalism: "... the fact that Serbia is now run by a puppet government of US imperialism, along with Kosova being a Nato colony, surely is a violation of Serbia's right to determination" (internet posting, October 27).

And in case anyone had missed the point, or considered that perhaps she had expressed her point of view carelessly, she repeated the same point the next day: "In treating the elections the way it did (financing and advising DOS) and sending the aircraft carriers into the Adriatic, US imperialism truly trampled on Serbia's independent right to determination" (internet posting, October 28).

In fact the same point had been made more straightforwardly by an individual whose politics appear to be broadly 'official communist' earlier in the discussion on the list, as part of his own rant against the CPGB's defence of the Kosovar right to self-determination during the war, and our support for the mass movement that overthrew Milosevic afterwards. Denouncing the defeat of Milosevic as being an event organised by the west, he condemned the Serbian opposition for seeking financial aid from pro-capitalist formations in the west and fulminated that in his view, 'self-determination' meant the following:

"... the right to a political system free of foreign interference, to elementary control of the national economy (control of tax and spending, foreign trade and foreign capital ownership). All the rights that are taken for granted in Britain but are daily denied to the third world (usually with the connivance of local elites). I consider them the precondition for democracy" (David Welch, internet posting, October 24).

One would think that the overthrow of Milosevic had been effected by forces based on US warships occupying Belgrade, and not by an insurrection of the Serbian masses themselves. Such distortions of reality are a fairly miserable illustration of Robertson's maxim that "programme generates theory" - or the cruder Stalinist equivalent, that 'paper will take anything that is written on it'. Yet even comrade Hoskings's bloc partner, Owen Jones, in a recently published small article captured something of the reality of the October movement. Comrade Jones attempted to put a brave face on the (initially bitterly regretted) defeat of Milosevic with a convoluted schema of imminent working class radicalisation, ignoring the present bourgeois-democratic consciousness of the masses engendered by Milosevic's brutal and anti-democratic pseudo-'socialist' regime.

Nevertheless, despite the overstatement, he declared: "A new revolution, of a world-historic importance yet to be determined, is in full flower in Serbia today" (New Interventions autumn). In reality, the democratic political revolution faces considerable obstacles holding back its development into the "full flower" of proletarian social revolution. But it is not excluded that such a movement, given a correct understanding and tactics by class conscious elements with roots in the situation, could indeed develop in such a direction.

However, an indifference to democratic struggles, to the point of giving 'military support' to Milosevic's armed crusade against the 'pro-imperialist' Kosovar Albanians and denouncing the Serbian mass movement as reactionary and pro-western, is hardly going to invoke anything but contempt from those who were radicalised by democratic struggle against Milosevic.

It is considerations like this that appear to have silenced the ultra-Stalinophile Trotskyists.

Ian Donovan