A reply to Solidarity/Against the Current on Kosovo

This article is a reply to Solidarity, a left organization in the USA, and Against the Current, a monthly journal they produce. Their position on Nato's war, which mixes hostility toward the Serbs with support for Kosovar self-determination, is reflective of a trend within the broad constellation of Trotskyist groups internationally, and groups like Solidarity which have emerged out of this movement.

A few brief words about Solidarity's origins are in order. It was formed in the 1980s by radicals who had been part of the defunct International Socialism (IS), a left-Shachtmanite current. IS was strongly influenced by the writings of the late Hal Draper, one of the great Marxist thinkers of the past 50 years. A librarian at U. Cal, Berkeley, Draper found that independence from academia, while remaining close to its scholarly resources, was the ideal combination for his scholarly work--a position I strongly identify with. Draper and the IS'ers held a "third camp" position. They thought that both the US and the USSR were class societies, whose governments needed to be overthrown in order for true socialism to triumph.

The other important component of Solidarity is ex-SWP'ers, who left the American Trotskyist movement after it renounced Trotskyism in the early 1980s. They by and large disagree with the "third camp" position, but have agreed to not allow these differences get in the way of building a socialist alternative in the United States. They feel that the "Russian questions" can be discussed in a leisurely fashion while more pressing class struggle issues occupy their immediate attention. The only problem with this approach--it would seem--is that the ten year old war in Yugoslavia is very much connected to the "Russian questions".

In general, the Trotskyist ideological milieu--including Solidarity--has not really provided a satisfactory analysis of Kosovar nationalism. This article will place the movement in historical context and explain why it is a mistake to issue a blank check for "Kosovar self-determination". It will then address the theoretical framework of "third campism" that form the basis of the ATC/Solidarity statements on Yugoslavia, while actually hearkening back to the original split between Trotsky and Shachtman. Although I do not think that "third camp" positions fall outside of a basic Marxist framework, it is necessary to challenge them when they interfere with an adequate response to imperialist war. It is one thing to disagree about the exact class nature of the USSR in the 1930s, it is another thing to promote falsifications of Serb-Kosovar relations when bombs are being dropped in the name of halting "Serb aggression."

One of the main problems of the anti-Milosevic, pro-Kosovar left is that it fails to provide historical context for the Serb-Albanian conflict. It has a curious time-line, where the starting date is the suspension of Kosovar autonomy in 1989. Solidarity doesn't even bother to go that far back in history and seems happy to base its analysis on the hysterical press coverage of recent months:

"The government of what was Yugoslavia (now only Serbia and Montenegro, essentially Serbia alone) is sponsoring massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and indeed is now waging a war against the Kosovo population which is intended to kill or remove half the Albanian population, if not more." (The position papers can be accessed at: http://www.labornet.org/solidarity/)

What's more, they charge that the Serbs' decision to ethnically cleanse Kosovo was planned in advance and that they were encouraged to do this by imperialism itself:

"It is clearly true that the flow of refugees, the reports of mass depopulations and burning of villages, and the all-too-credible reports of separation of male refugees for summary mass executions, all accelerated when the bombings began. Yet it is important not to overweight this argument: The Serbian regime's campaign for the destruction of the Kosovar Albanian population was already underway."

Internal documents from Joschka Fischer's Foreign Office in Germany contradict these claims. They were obtained by IALANA (International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms) and translated into English by Eric Canepa, an activist with the Brecht Forum in New York City. One report, dated 1/12/99, and addressed to the Administrative Court of Trier states:

"Even in Kosovo an explicit political persecution linked to Albanian ethnicity is not verifiable. The East of Kosovo is still not involved in armed conflict. Public life in cities like Pristina, Urosevac, Gnjilan, etc. has, in the entire conflict period, continued on a relatively normal basis. The actions of the security forces (were) not directed against the Kosovo-Albanians as an ethnically defined group, but against the military opponent and its actual or alleged supporters." (These reports are online at the Z Magazine website http://www.lbbs.org)

While these revelations are important, the more important question for Marxists is what led to such a brutal conflict in the first place. There is little disagreement about the fact that a civil war was in progress, but what were the social and political forces at work? What were the initial causes? The Solidarity/ATC statement leads one to conclude that naked racism in the Serb nation came to a head when Milosevic took power. Like the Indonesian Suharto regime, the Serbs then launched a military campaign in order to force a form of apartheid on an oppressed Albanian nationality. Solidarity specifically links the Yugoslav government with the American and Afrikaner racist regimes:

"We do not, in principle, regard 'internal affairs' as inviolable when a state or regime wages a war of extermination or practices extreme racism inside its own internationally recognized borders. Socialists wouldn't have opposed, for example, United Nations "interference" in the oppression of the Black community by the United States, as Malcolm X was preparing to demand. In certain cases we support and demand sanctions, as in the case of South Africa where the internal anti-apartheid movement clearly wanted them."

Of course, since most people are aware of the history of American slavery and South African apartheid, there is little reason to challenge Malcom X's or Nelson Mandela's revolutionary struggles for justice and equality. But what are the historical lessons that one can draw from the Kosovar secessionist struggle? Since Solidarity/ATC can't be bothered to supply them, one must assume that it was an emancipatory movement as well. Such an assumption would be unwarranted given the facts.

Part of the problem in dealing with historical context is that nationalists on both sides have an understanding of history that is virtually useless to Marxists. Serbs would go back to the battle of Kosovo 700 years ago, while Albanians justify themselves on the basis of historical events during the Ottoman Empire. Our context must be rooted in what matters most: the class nature of the Yugoslavian socialist regime and the revolution which gave birth to it. From this standpoint, it is most useful to examine the interplay between Serb and Kosovar nationalities during WWII, when Tito's forces were mounting their challenge to Nazism and capitalism alike.

During the fascist occupation of Yugoslavia during WWII, Kosovo came under Albanian control, which was itself part of Mussolini's dominion. While the Serbs suffered greatly under Nazi rule, the Kosovars felt relatively emancipated as they attached themselves to local fascist militia units.

The Albanian quisling ruler, Mustafa Kruje, visited Kosovo in June 1942 and publicly advocated the need for an ethnically pure Albania that included Kosovo. Between 70 to 100 thousand Serbs were forced out. Those who remained were forced to assimilate in schools where the Albanian language was used exclusively. During the 1960s and 70s, when Kosovar nationalism began to re-emerge, it was obvious that the goal of the movement was to turn back the clock to this state of affairs.

There were fitful attempts to win Kosovars to the Communist guerrilla movement, during WWII but a top Communist organizer Svetozar Vukmanovich-Tempo explained the difficulties in a November 1943 report:

"conditions for [starting] armed resistance in Kosovo and Metohija were worse than in any other region of the country.... the Albanian population, which made up two-thirds of the whole population, had an unfriendly attitude toward the partisans... The occupiers have succeeded in winning the Kosovo Albanians to their side by annexing Metohija and a part of Kosovo to rump Albania; the local government is in the hands of the Albanians, the Albanian language is obligatory... The Albanian population is suspicious of all those who struggle for Yugoslavia, whether old or new; in their eyes it is always less than what they have got from the occupier..." (quoted in "The Saga of Kosovo", by Alex Dragnich and Slavko Todorovich)

In general, the problem for revolutionaries in Yugoslavia was similar to the one that the Sandinistas faced with respect to the Pacific Coast Indians. While Somoza--the Mussolini of Nicaragua--had been unremittingly cruel to the Spanish-speaking majority of the country, English-speaking indigenous peoples never faced the same direct assault. Furthermore, Somoza's regime promoted commercial development on the Atlantic Coast that benefited many of the indigenous peoples, Miskitus in particular. While socialism in the long-run was the only system that could provide for total human development in Nicaragua, in the short-run many indigenous peoples felt that they had it better during Somoza when the country seemed more prosperous and peaceful, from their vantage-point.

When Tito's forces triumphed, they made many of the same mistakes in Kosovo that the Sandinistas made in Nicaragua. Since the Sandinistas were staring down the barrel of the US military, they had to correct their course much more rapidly than the Yugoslavs did. Arrogance remained a problem until 1966 when Tito's number two official, Aleksandr Rankovic, was removed from office.

>From that point on, federal money poured into Kosovo at a higher rate than into any other part of the country. Pristina University grew to become one of the country's largest with 48,000 students. Most of the region's administrators, and its police, were ethnic Albanians. They were even allowed to fly the Albanian flag, a black eagle on a red field. Yet this rapid economic development ironically fed unrest as expectations rose which economic development could not satisfy. Frustration deepened when the IMF and western banks tightened their vise in ensuing years. There were riots in 1968 and again in 1975. Demonstrators demanded the right to secede and even demanded annexation by Enver Hoxha's Albania.

Throughout the 1970s Kosovar nationalism showed no progressive aspects as Black nationalism in the United States had shown in the same period. If anything, as a social phenomenon it demonstrated some affinity with the Afghan village-based resistance to the Soviet-backed regime of the 1980s. Miranda Vickers, a scholar and journalist sympathetic to the Kosovar cause, writes in "Between Serb and Albanian" that:

"In the early 1980s an Albanian scholar noted that the Kosovar way of life was still governed by traditional mores and outdated customs and badly needed to be transformed. He wrote that this needed to be social no less than economic, and to address first the still patriarchal family system:

"'The position of a woman is that of a human being deprived of fundamental rights. Women were still kept secluded at home when they did not work in the fields, they received minimal education, and were totally subordinate to male authority. The emancipation of women is the first and foremost task for the Kosovars as a people in order to achieve full emancipation. A community denying half of its members access to a full education can never be a civilised community.'

"Gradually women participated more in public life. Only ten years earlier they hardly ever left home. All the same, women still had servile domestic tasks. Hartmut Albert, a guest in an Albanian home in Pec in 1979, reported as follows:

"'During our meal, between the tales, the patriarchal order in the household was evident once again. Only the men (including the 14-year-old son) gathered around the sofra (low table). Our host's wife approached only to serve our food and clear the table. Then she waited silently at the door with water and a hand towel until we wanted to wash our hands.'"

Against this social backdrop, it is not difficult to understand why a substantial portion of the nationalist movement openly proclaimed fascist goals. Keeping women in this kind of servitude is completely in keeping with the sort of state that prevailed during Mussolini's reign. Chris Hedges reported in the March 28, 1999 NY Times that:

"The KLA splits down a bizarre ideological divide, with hints of fascism on one side and whiffs of communism on the other. The former faction is led by the sons and grandsons of rightist Albanian fighters -- either the heirs of those who fought in the World War II fascist militias and the Skanderbeg volunteer SS division raised by the Nazis, or the descendants of the rightist Albanian rebels who rose up against the Serbs 80 years ago.

"Although never much of a fighting force, the Skanderbeg division took part in the shameful roundup and deportation of the province's few hundred Jews during the Holocaust. The division's remnants fought Tito's Partisans at the end of the war, leaving thousands of ethnic Albanians dead.

"The decision by KLA commanders to dress their police in black fatigues and order their fighters to salute with a clenched fist to the forehead led many to worry about these fascist antecedents. Following such criticism, the salute has been changed to the traditional open-palm salute common in the U.S. Army."

Such reports have appeared both in the bourgeois and left-wing press, as well as on the Internet, for some months now. In light of the wide availability of this information, it is simply shocking to discover that the Solidarity comrades merely consider the KLA to be "politically incoherent," while demanding at the same time that it be armed. What is the logic behind arming a movement that grows out of misogyny, religious fundamentalism and irredentism? Imperialism will always find a way to support such movements without assistance from left-wingers, just as it did throughout the years of low-intensity conflict in the 1980s.

This leads us now to the next question. Is it correct to take a "third-camp" position between the US and Yugoslavia? Against the Current would have us believe that it is of little consequence to the historical struggle for socialism which side wins:

"This is a thoroughly reactionary war, in which the rulers of the United States and Western Europe must systematically promote ever-bigger lies to their own populations: lies to exaggerate the 'great military success' of the bombings and to hide the destruction of civilian life; lies to disguise the full extent of the escalation and occupation that must be prepared to win this war; lies to rewrite history, to make people forget that throughout the 1990s the West facilitated Milosevic's butcheries and internal repression by treating him as the key to Balkan 'stability.'"

The notion that Nato and the west had a pro-Serb tilt in the 1990s is absurd. In fact, "stability" is the last adjective in the world that can be applied to Nato intervention in the Balkans, since the result has been nothing but war over the past decade. Since the former IS'ers in Solidarity would have regarded Tito's government as just another repressive regime in no way superior to contemporaneous capitalist regimes in Greece or Portugal, we should not be too surprised by the invective heaped on the Milosevic's government, which--for all its distortions--does represent a historical continuity with the first successful socialist revolution since 1917.

In the "Third Camp" schema, there is a bit of a paradox. Since there are no qualitative class differences between societies ruled by Stalinist dictators and our own, the obvious conflict between the two camps must be rooted in something else than rival economic systems. What that is exactly I've never been able to figure out. For those of us who do believe that the cold war was about exactly such a clash, and--more importantly--that the Soviet-type states were an advance over what preceded them, it is important to put the war with Yugoslavia into that context. We have been conditioned to sympathize more openly with Castro's Cuba or the USSR of the early 1920s (how early depends on your theoretical schema), but it is just as important to solidarize with those countries under attack whose governments are not as spotless or heroic.

Buried under all the war hysteria and open propaganda about Milosevic's evil nature, there were press reports in major dailies shortly after his election that made the underlying class issues crystal-clear. The most forthright was Carol J. Williams' in the December 12, 1990 Los Angeles Times:

"The choice of Milosevic and what amounts to hard-line communism isolates Serbia, the largest republic, from four other Yugoslav states that have elected center-right governments and set about repairing the economic damage inflicted by half a century of Marxism. The Socialists have remained popular in Serbia despite an anti-Communist mood in Eastern Europe..."

The demonization of Milosevic in the western press has much more to do with the perception that he is some kind of "wild card" in the transformation of Eastern Europe into pliant, maquiladora zones. If anything, the hatred toward his wife is even greater and takes on an openly misogynist character as she is tagged the "Red Witch" of Yugoslavia. Mirjana Markovic's politics were never as ambiguous as her husbands and nobody could possibly regard her as pro-western. A January 21, 1996 Washington Post article by Christine Spolar states:

"The wife of President Slobodan Milosevic is casting a long shadow across the political and economic future of this Yugoslav republic. As Serbia tries to find its way in the world after signing the Dayton peace accord with Croatia and Bosnia, the lifelong Communist has emerged as both a significant force and a human tip sheet to the ways of her all-powerful husband.

"In the past 1 1/2 years, Markovic, 53, has been working quietly to forge a financial base among Serbian elite, to shore up support for a rededicated communist party and to thwart economic changes, most importantly privatization, that Belgrade analysts say Serbia desperately needs to turn its dismal economy around."

Of course, none of this might register on leftists who will be satisfied by nothing short of true socialism. These dreamers of the absolute envision a society like the kind that Marx wrote about, where the operating principle will be "to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities." Repression, bureaucracy and inequality will be unknown. For some reason, however, all attempts at revolutions in the 20th century have fallen short of Marx's prescriptions. A dialectical understanding of such revolutions, which proceeds from the notion put forward by Marx in the 18th Brumaire that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please", can lead us to only one conclusion. Any time that capitalism is overthrown, revolutionaries in other countries have a duty to defend such revolutions. In the battered terrain of the collapsed socialist world, there are very few sparks of resistance today. While it takes a supreme dialectical understanding to defend Yugoslavia in 1999, it should not take such a gift to understand that a victory against the United States and its Nato allies will be an enormous blow to capitalist reaction.

In many ways, Trotsky had the best understanding of the USSR than any other Marxist thinker. His analogy with trade unions was most apt. It is important to understand post-capitalist societies as having similarities with trade unions. They are creations of working people, won through struggle, that may have democratic or bureaucratic leaderships. The Teamsters Union was a working-class institution whether led by Trotskyists or by Jimmy Hoffa. In the confrontation between Teamsters Union and the bosses, we side with the teamsters. A victory by truckers would not only help to encourage other unions, but would also lead to shake-ups in a bureaucratized union conducting the strike itself.

If there are any doubts about this, they can be assuaged by looking at the rapid transformations taking place among Chinese youth. A profound anti-imperialist mood has taken hold, which is directly related to Nato's stance in the Balkans, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy, as well as recent economic contradictions between the Chinese state and western imperialism. Left-wing forces in China and Russia, as well as anti-bureaucratic formations in Yugoslavia, will be inspired by a victory over Nato. To stand "above" the conflict between US imperialism and its allies, and a country with a mixed economy defending its sovereignty is a throwback to the worst aspects of Shachtmanism. While nobody can persuade people who have embraced a particular schema to give up their ideas, one can certainly hope that they can be persuaded to step back from its most extreme logic. Solidarity is an important left organization which has done exemplary work in the trade unions, including the Teamsters. I address these remarks to them in the spirit of comradeship and hope they are accepted as such.

Louis Proyect