SWP forgets Kosova

Today the SWP does everything it can to be seen as the staunchest ally of muslims in their fight against oppression. Back in the 1990s, however, it was a different story, writes Peter Manson

In its 'Statement on the aftermath of the London bombing', the Socialist Workers Party draws up a long list of imperialism's crimes - particularly those of British imperialism - as a result of which muslims have not only "raged", but "despaired" (July 13). It is this, says the SWP, which provides us with backdrop against which the July 7 atrocities must be judged. Noticeably absent from the list are the imperialist interventions in ex-Yugoslavia during the mid to late 1990s, even though, first in Bosnia and then in Kosova, muslims were on the sharp end of repression, brutality and attempts at ethnic cleansing. The reason the SWP conveniently forgets Bosnia and Kosova is that on both occasions the imperialists, acting at that time under the banner of the United Nations and/or Nato, claimed they were intervening to protect muslims, while by contrast the SWP studiously failed to uphold the rights of Bosniacs and Kosovars. April 1999: Serb nationalist with 'adapted' SWP poster Back in 1995, when the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that tore apart the various nationalities and ethnic groupings was centred on Bosnia-Herzegovina, the SWP's Duncan Blackie raised the question of Bosnian muslims - only in order to dismiss the notion that they should be treated as an oppressed group: "Many may feel that the Bosnians have been singled out for persecution as they are muslims. This can certainly seem a powerful argument in the context of countries like Britain, where anti-muslim bigotry serves as the umbrella of respectable and less respectable racism. Internationally, imperialism seems to have a track record of singling out muslims. However, the argument doesn't in reality hold water and it is quite wrong to portray the war in Bosnia as the struggle of the oppressed against oppressors" (Socialist Review July-August 1995). This was because it was "pointless to view the war in terms of 'good' and 'bad' sides": all the various groupings were led by nationalists whose only interest was in grabbing as much territory as possible at the expense of other ethnicities and all should be equally opposed. This was, of course, correct as far as it went. It was true that "The muslims of Bosnia were not an oppressed group before the war started". But once the war did start and official and unofficial Serb armed forces began a series of mass murders of muslims, then, self-evidently, it was impossible to argue that they were still not oppressed. What the situation demanded was a political approach that championed the rights of all ethnic groups, including the right to self-determination up to and including the right to separate, with full protection for minorities. But the SWP did no such thing. It argued, in the words of comrade Blackie, that, firstly, "the leaders of the major outside powers can provide no solution"; and, secondly, "an alternative" based on "class struggle" had to be promoted. So far, so good. However, what the comrades meant by this second point was that "workers in Belgrade and Zagreb (and Sarajevo too) have had their living standards and political freedom dashed" and the answer was an abstract unity around mainly trade union-type questions. The right to self-determination did not come into it. But we cannot wish away national and ethnic antagonisms. It is the duty of communists and revolutionary socialists to advocate concrete solutions to overcome those antagonisms - precisely in order to lay the basis for a class unity that will be built not on moralistic appeals, but on the recognition by each group of the others' democratic and national rights. Specifically, in the case of Bosnia, as elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, this meant recognising the right of Bosnian muslims to their own state, but equally the right of Bosnian Serbs and Croats, in areas where they formed the majority, to secede and attach themselves to Serbia and Croatia respectively if they wished. By contrast, the various nationalist leaders demanded 'territorial integrity' - ie, rights for a piece of land over and above the rights of people. Since the imperialists, for their own reasons, continued to highlight above all abuses against muslims and claimed to uphold their rights in particular, increasingly the SWP tended to 'bend the stick' in the other direction during the course of 1995. Writing in International Socialism Journal Lindsey German reiterated that "the intervention of the western imperialist powers can only make things worse. The events of recent months have borne out this view. However, there are many on the left who almost wilfully ignore recent developments, preferring to continue to paint the Serbs as 'fascist aggressors' and the muslims, and to a lesser extent Croats, as innocent victims. Taking such a view means accepting fairly uncritically many of the nationalist views of the Croatian and Bosnian governments" (winter 1995). As we shall see, the SWP itself was by the end of the decade guilty of "accepting "¦ many of the nationalist views" of the Serbs - and it did so a little bit more than "fairly uncritically". Comrade German continued: "The muslims have suffered, and continue to suffer, terrible atrocities. But they too have been guilty of ethnic cleansing, killing and rape." She went on to list the measures of discrimination enacted by the Bosnian state against non-muslims. She concluded her article with a 1910 quotation from Leon Trotsky in favour of "state unity of the Balkan peninsula", to be achieved "through the peoples themselves coming together - this is the road of revolution, the road that means overthrowing the Balkan dynasties and unfurling the banner of a Balkan federal republic". However, comrade German did not appear to notice, or perhaps understand, the final phrase. A "Balkan federal republic" can be attained only on a voluntary basis - which means precisely the championing of the right to self-determination of each constituent people. Recognising the national rights of Bosnians, Kosovars, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Hungarians, etc is a prerequisite for the exercise of such self-determination in favour of "state unity". But, for comrade German, to call for self-determination was apparently to follow the "nationalist road". In 1995 the position of the SWP was merely confused and inadequate. However, by 1999 - influenced no doubt by its new-found allies in the Committee for Peace in the Balkans (amongst others, the Communist Party of Britain, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a collection of Serb nationalists) - as a reaction to the Nato onslaught on Belgrade it had descended into a combination of social-pacifism and Serbia defencism. What provoked the imperialist intervention was the renewed attack by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia on any semblance of remaining rights for the Kosovar Albanians, whose territory was to be fully incorporated into 'greater Serbia'. Kosovars were 'encouraged' to leave their homes and livelihoods and head across the border into Albania. Up to 250,000 ethnic Albanians were driven from their homes at gunpoint by the Yugoslavian army and its Serbian paramilitary accomplices in Kosova. Meanwhile the SWP preached its routine economism - 'Albanian and Serbian workers unite against the bosses' - conceding in the process the moral high ground to Tony Blair. Not that the imperialists were acting out of the goodness of their hearts - the interest of the Kosovars was the last thing they were worried about. Rather they were concerned at the destabilisation of the entire region if the ethnic cleansing and consequent fragmentation was not halted. In response to the Nato attacks, which began at the end of March 1999, Socialist Worker's front page headline informed us: "War leads to catastrophe - Stop the bombing" (April 10 1999). Articles within the paper served to emphasise the headline's social-pacifist line, which was further echoed in the slogan chanted by SWP marchers on the April 11 demonstration to oppose the bombing: "One, two, three, four, we don't want no bloody war; five, six, seven, eight, spend it on the welfare state." Thus the 'social' aspect of the SWP's pacifism was summed up in its 'Welfare, not warfare' slogan. This demand reduced a political issue - that it was essential for the working class to grasp and solve - into an economic nostrum fully within the sphere of everyday trade unionism. SWP comrades held up placards which read, "New Labour, new war; stop the bombings: Nato out of the Balkans", but nowhere did the SWP's contingent express the need for independence for Kosova, a prime democratic question in the Balkans at the time. The SWP's capitulation to social-pacifism and its failure to present a democratic, internationalist and truly working class stance was compounded by its platform speaker at the Trafalgar Square rally, the comedian, Mark Steel. He too ignored the question of independence for Kosova, refusing even to pay lip service to its right to self-determination. All comrade Steel could come up with was: "The ordinary people of the Balkans, whether Serb, Croat, Kosovan, or Montenegrin, have more in common with each other than their rulers. In order to fight against the nationalism that is destroying the region, they need socialism." Platitudes and generalisation as usual then. Instead of countering the reactionary politics of most of those present on the march, who were simply calling for an end to the bombing of Serbia from a pacifist or even a red-brown position, instead of taking a revolutionary stand, the SWP rejected any hint of proletarian internationalism, preferring to add its voice to those of concerned bourgeois liberals. Not only did the SWP march behind Bruce Kent, but - more to the point - it took on his politics. It is not the duty of revolutionaries to act as cheerleaders for the latest country to run foul of the US-led west, as if such a regime's ersatz 'anti-imperialism' represents any kind of working class interests. Revolutionaries must explain why Serbia's working class needs to support the right of Kosova to independence. The SWP completely failed in this duty. The following week comrade Steel was explicit in expressing the SWP's rejection of Kosovar self-determination. Speaking at the Committee for Peace in the Balkans rally at Friends Meeting House on April 19, he called such a demand a "dangerous diversion" from the class struggle. Kosovars should "give up the fight for independence" and "reject nationalism". Not to do so was "to play into the hands of their rulers". Instead they should have been "helping the Serb dissidents ... the factory worker ... the rebel radio station". The SWP wanted everybody to get back to good old (British) trade unionist normality and forget about all those divisive democratic questions. But now its economism was clearly serving the cause of Serb chauvinism. The war crimes Socialist Worker tended to highlight almost exclusively were not those committed against the Kosovars, but, for example, the destruction of Serbian orthodox churches by Nato bombs. The Committee for Peace in the Balkans did not even invite Kosovar speakers onto its platforms. It preferred to support Milosevic as the 'lesser evil' against Nato than take a principled line that was genuinely revolutionary defeatist and back the rights of the largely muslim Kosovar people. Throughout the Kosova conflict and the imperialist assault on Serbia the SWP position was 'war is bad' - full stop. At the same time it openly (and sickeningly) argued that, as Nato is the enemy of the British working class, the left must keep quiet on the brutality of Nato's enemy, the Serbian regime. That, argued the SWP, is a question for the Serbian working class. Of course, the SWP did, in the words of Charlie Kimber, admit that "the Serbian government and security forces are responsible for the massacre of hundreds and probably thousands" (Socialist Worker June 26 1999). But then comrade Kimber began to haggle about the numbers: "They [Nato] throw out widely varying figures of those dead, reports of torture and rumours of atrocities with no regard for the truth. Over the last two weeks we have heard claims of 100,000 dead, 30,000 dead, 10,000 dead and then figures rising again ... It is a ghoulish bidding war designed to divert attention from what really happened and to hide Nato's role in the whole process." The SWP's central thesis was that Nato made an admittedly bad situation much worse: "Nato ... played a crucial role in accelerating the terror faced by Kosovan Albanians ... The scale of killings and ethnic cleansing soared after March 24, the day the Nato bombing began ...There were killings before March 24, but they were on a relatively small scale, similar to those which, disgracefully, go on every day in regimes throughout the world. Nato created the climate in which murder and torture became a hundred times more likely" (my emphasis). In other words, had it not been for Nato's air offensive, Milosevic would have limited himself to killing only "relatively small" numbers of Kosovars. This would have been "disgraceful", to be sure, but it would have been better thus. An abhorrent position which resulted directly from the SWP's failure to address the central democratic question about the Kosova conflict. It was this failure at the level of basic principle and theory that led the SWP to bemoan the "catastrophe" and "horror" of the Balkans war - chastising the Milosevic regime, but placing the blame for Serbian ethnic cleansing firmly on Nato and imperialism. In Socialist Review Chris Harman conceded that Milosevic's campaign of terror against Kosova was "a crime against humanity, which you couldn't defend" (July-August). As an aside, he even admitted that the Kosovars' democratic demand for self-determination was "legitimate". It was just that it should not be raised right now. Referring to the "absolute intellectual confusion of the far left" (not least the CPGB and the Weekly Worker, obviously), Harman claimed that we had "not understood the tradition of opposition to imperialist war ... We have to remember who our main enemy is ..." What rubbish. We were quite clear that our main enemy is at home. We argued with absolute consistency against the Nato bombing and unreservedly condemned the imperialist war aims. But by turning the internationalist maxim, 'The main enemy is at home', into 'The only enemy is at home', the SWP placed itself firmly in the Milosevic defencist camp. In other words, the SWP seems to think a commitment to anti-imperialism gives you carte blanche to junk the struggle for democracy, leaving us with an 'anti-imperialism' which is robbed of its emancipatory content. Even worse, it actually became an apologia for the violence of the oppressors. Leninism turned into its opposite. The democratic rights of the violently oppressed Kosovar ethnic Albanians did not count for a row of beans. The SWP's formal commitment to their rights turned to dust as soon as Nato bombs started to hit Serbia. Defending these particular 'radicalised muslims' simply disappeared from the equation, when it came to opposing Nato and the wider interests of the United States-European Union bourgeoisies. The SWP's 'anti-imperialism' neatly dovetailed with the war aims and propaganda of the Serbian state. The exact opposite of comrade Trotsky's voluntary "Balkan federal republic". Alex Callinicos attempted to justify retrospectively his organisation's position when he looked back on the conflict the following year. And just for good measure he decided to rewrite history. The fact that hundreds of thousands were forcibly uprooted in Kosova could not be laid at Milosevic's door at all: "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 2000). In Socialist Review he explained that the "mass expulsions of Kosovan Albanians" were "in fact precipitated" by Nato's bombing campaign (April 2000). You might as well argue that the 1943-45 Nazi holocaust was "precipiated" by the Allied war effort. In reality the mass exodus of the Kosovar people was the result of a deliberately planned and executed pogrom directed against them from Belgrade. True, Nato's military strikes had the effect of escalating the Serbian terror campaign against the ethnic Albanians as a by-product. But to imply that Nato was somehow directly responsible for the refugee crisis was almost worthy of a Göbbels. Callinicos went on: "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" (Socialist Worker March 25 2000). Oh well, the Serb terror was not so bad then. This oppression of fellow muslims was nothing for would-be suicide bombers in Leeds to get upset about. And the fact that a mere "barbarous atrocity", not "the holocaust", was inflicted on the Kosovar people clearly invalidated their democratic right to self-determination - this 'holocaust denial' line absolved the SWP of any need to act like Leninists and make its organisation a tribune of the oppressed. Instead it resorted to wimpish Church of England-style sermons - 'Serbs have suffered too', and 'All violence is terrible, you know'. Thus, for Callinicos, those who opposed the crimes against Kosova allegedly "ignore the plight of the province's [ie, Kosova] 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" (ibid). He concluded: "The Serbs' flight reflects the stranglehold increasingly exercised over the province by the Albanian nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army." For comrade Callinicos the KLA was just a bunch of nationalists - probably just a bunch of gangsters and drug-runners in fact. They were certainly stooges of western imperialism in his view. In this way he hoped to excuse the failure to advocate Kosovar self-determination and full independence (from both Yugoslavia and the Nato forces). The whole episode was a sorry tale from start to finish. Back in the 90s the SWP's version of 'anti-imperialism' - my enemy's enemy is my friend - led it to act as an apologist not for islamist reaction, but for the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of muslims l