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Fourth International 1990: The end of the Soviet Union

Yugoslavia: Its Meaning for World Labor

As reports of hideous atrocities continue to flow from the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are growing cries by big business politicians and the media for a military intervention in the former Yugoslav republic.

In a speech August 5, Democratic presidential candidate Clinton advocated the use of “military force.” He declared, “I would begin with air power against the Serbs, to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity.” Congressional Democrats and some Republicans have echoed this demand.

In a column published in the August 6 New York Times, Leslie Gelb, a former top-level official in the US State Department, criticized what he views as the administration’s excess “caution” about intervening militarily. “But doubts about force carry much less weight if the proposal is to bomb Serbian territory,” Gelb writes. “The targets would be military factories, airfields, supply depots and the like.” Faced with such a bombing campaign, he predicts, “Serbian leaders might reconsider their ambitions.”

The Times, which has continuously beaten the drums for US intervention in the Yugoslav conflict, also published a column by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who likewise called for “military retaliation” by NATO forces against Serbia.

There is no doubt that horrible atrocities are taking place in Yugoslavia. While, for their own political purposes, the capitalist media and the politicians focus exclusively on the indisputable crimes carried out by Serbian forces, similarly heinous acts have been committed by Croat and Moslim forces as well. These crimes are inherent in the imperialist-backed attempt to dismember along ethnic lines a nation which has existed for more than 70 years.

In determining its own independent attitude toward the events in Yugoslavia and the growing threat of war, the working class cannot afford to base itself simply on moral revulsion and certainly not on the distorted propaganda of the capitalist press.

Certain fundamental questions must be posed. What is the source of the present conflict and the atrocities which it has engendered? What solution would imperialism seek to implement by military means? What perspective and program can advance the interests of workers of all nationalities?

Every class-conscious worker is outraged by the wanton slaughter of unarmed men, women and children and by the fascistic policy of “ethnic cleansing.” These crimes have no parallel in Europe since the Second World War. Since the fighting erupted little over a year ago, it is estimated that 50,000 have been killed and 2.5 million turned into refugees.

But what of the imperialists? Why are they suddenly so squeamish about atrocities? None of them—Bush and Clinton least of all—worried themselves about the hundreds of thousands of defenseless men, women and children who were killed and maimed in the bombing of Iraq. They have no concern about the Cuban people subjected to the steady strangulation of a US economic blockade. Moreover, the administration has washed its hands of the civil war and famine which threaten to claim the lives of 1.5 million people in Somalia.

No, when the likes of Bush and Clinton begin lamenting atrocities, one can be sure that definite interests are involved. They are shedding crocodile tears for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina precisely because Yugoslavia has become a battleground for the conflicting economic interests of the major powers.

Germany has repeatedly sought to exert its influence and dominance over the Balkans. It sees the civil war as an opportunity to assert its hegemony throughout Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, and to flex its military muscle for the first time since the fall of the Third Reich.

Washington approaches the events in Yugoslavia from the standpoint of defending its own position against the rise of Germany and the imminent break-up of NATO. In the wake of the collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracy, US imperialism is also striving to assert its hegemony in the East. Faced with the steady erosion of its economic and political power, US imperialism is driven toward the reckless use of its military might.

Those shouting the loudest for military action, including Clinton and Gore, do not even pretend to have a plan for a peaceful settlement of the Yugoslav civil war. Their prescription is quite simply to drop some bombs and see what happens. Against the destruction caused by Serbian mortars, they counterpose the devastation of US smart bombs and cruise missiles. Nothing could more clearly expose the Democrats, supported by the trade union bureaucracy, as the party of imperialist war. Like their Republican counterparts, the Democrats have no solution to mounting global tensions outside of militarism and aggression.

The idea that a US military intervention or, for that matter, one carried out by Germany, or the rest of Europe, would “sort things out” in Yugoslavia is absurd. These imperialist powers are themselves directly responsible for the present carnage.

The fratricidal warfare in Yugoslavia is the ugly face of the “new world order” which Bush proclaimed would be built on the basis of the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The destruction of the last vestiges of socialized property relations and economic planning undermined the foundation for the unity of the ethnically heterogeneous population of Yugoslavia. The resurgence of capitalism has inevitably been accompanied by the resurrection of virulent nationalism. This is not just the case in Yugoslavia. Similar conflicts are emerging in far-flung regions of the former USSR, and in Czechoslovakia capitalist restoration has led to the country’s carve-up along ethnic lines.

The American and the Western European bourgeoisie sought the restoration of capitalism and the breakup of these states. They fully expected these types of eruptions and intend to exploit them as a means of asserting their own control of the markets, resources and labor power of these countries.

Throughout Eastern Europe, the drive to restore capitalism has been carried out not by, but against, the masses of workers. It is the goal of small cliques of ex-Stalinist bureaucrats, petty-bourgeois nationalists and aspiring capitalists who have the backing of imperialism. There is nothing democratic about it. It is imposed from above and invariably results in the wiping out of millions of jobs and the decimation of conditions of life for the working class.

Inevitably, the turn to the “market” provokes a frantic drive by these petty-bourgeois elements to enrich themselves and consolidate their control over the largest possible territory. In Yugoslavia, this has assumed the vicious form of expropriating property and expelling entire populations in the name of “ethnic cleansing.

Ideological defenders of capitalism portray the events in Yugoslavia as the unavoidable working out of natural antagonisms between its diverse peoples, which were artificially “suppressed” as a result of the nationalization of the means of production. This is a monstrous lie.

There is no genetic predisposition for Serbs to fight Moslems or Croats to fight Serbs. These peoples have lived side by side in peace for generations. Intermarriage between different ethnic groups is extremely common.

It is impossible to understand the ongoing war in Yugoslavia without examining the conflict’s deep historical roots.

The Balkans, which provided the spark which ignited the First World War, has long demonstrated the organic incapacity of imperialism to resolve the problems of nationalism.

Leon Trotsky, who went to the region when war erupted there in 1912, explained how these conflicting imperialist interests had resulted in the division of the Balkans and the setting of its peoples one against another:

“The frontiers between the dwarf states of the Balkan Peninsula were drawn not in accordance with national conditions or national demands, but as a result of wars, diplomatic intrigues, and dynastic interests. The Great Powers—in the first place, Russia and Austria—have always had a direct interest in setting the Balkan peoples and states against each other and then, when they have weakened one another, subjecting them to their economic and political influence. The petty dynasties ruling in these ‘broken pieces’ of the Balkan Peninsula have served and continued to serve as levers for European diplomatic intrigues. And this entire mechanism, founded on violence and perfidy, constitutes a huge burden weighing upon the Balkan peoples, holding back their economic and cultural development.... This peninsula, richly endowed by nature, is senselessly split up into little bits; peoples and goods moving about in it constantly come up against the prickly hedges of state frontiers....”

The war in the Balkans was the antechamber of World War I. The irreconcilable contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, between the world development of the productive forces and the outmoded nation-state system, erupted in the form of the desperate struggle between the rival imperialist powers for control and domination of raw materials, markets and sources of labor.

After four years of the greatest slaughter in human history, borders were redrawn and new states were created, Yugoslavia among them. Nonetheless, the old national conflicts and imperialist rivalries all remained unresolved. In Yugoslavia, the attempt to unite Serbs, Croats, Moslems and other nationalities from above, i.e., on the basis of imperialist dictates and the domination of the Serbian ruling classes, soon proved unviable.

In World War II, the Balkans once again were the scene of intense and bloody conflict. Following the occupation of Yugoslavia by Germany in 1941, the Croatian bourgeoisie formed the Ustasha, a fascist regime which rivaled the Nazis in its brutality. It carried out the slaughter of Serbs, Moslems, Jews and other national minorities. A civil war broke out in which a partisan movement, led by Tito and the Yugoslav Communist Party, fought the Nazis and Ustasha, as well as the Chetniks, a nationalist movement loyal to the Serbian monarchy.

The partisan movement was victorious because it sought to unite workers of all nationalities against both the Nazi occupiers and their native oppressors. The partisans won enormous popular support first of all because they rejected the petty nationalism upon which all of the other political parties and movements were based.

The Communist Party drew its cadre from all national and ethnic groups. Tito himself was a Croat, while many of his closest lieutenants were Serbs. The Yugoslav CP’s declared aim of unifying the Balkan peoples on a socialist basis was greeted enthusiastically by the Yugoslav people, a fact which no objective historian would attempt to deny.

The war ended with the reunification of the country as a federal republic. The nationalization of much of the country’s productive capacity and the introduction of elements of centralized planning provided a basis for uniting the region’s various peoples and, initially, produced a dramatic growth of the national economy.

Ultimately, however, Tito and the Communist Party became the gravediggers of the Yugoslav revolution. While opposing communalism within the boundaries of Yugoslavia, Tito, basing himself on the Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country,” adapted his regime to the nation-state system as it existed in Eastern Europe and internationally.

Tito soon renounced his call for a socialist federation of the Balkans. He accepted the maintenance of the national borders which had been imposed by imperialism, dividing the region’s peoples into the states of Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania and Greece.

This nationalist policy worked against and ultimately undermined the progress which had been made during and after the war in unifying the Yugoslav people. So long as imperialism maintained its grip on the Balkans, and the region remained split into small and economically weak states, it was impossible within the confines of the Yugoslav state to overcome the problems of economic backwardness inherited from the past. Extensive nationalizations and central economic planning could not by themselves, simply on a national basis, solve the historic problems confronting the regime.

As a result, the old national and communal tensions—between the Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Albanians, the Moslem Bosnians—continued to simmer just beneath the surface. The grievances of less developed Serbia against more economically advanced Croatia, for example, could rapidly be revived as long as conditions of backwardness in the national economy prevailed.

Within Yugoslavia itself, Tito ruled as a Bonapartist, balancing between the different nationalities and manipulating conflicts between them to consolidate his own power. The Yugoslav bureaucracy proved itself the forerunner of all the Stalinists throughout Eastern Europe in taking the path of restoring capitalist property relations and whipping up nationalist and ethnic conflicts in order to divide and disorient the working class and thereby disarm it in the face of mounting attacks on jobs and living standards.

The attempt to subordinate the Yugoslav working class to the interests of the IMF, the imperialist banks and an emerging native capitalist class was met with powerful resistance. By the mid-1980s a wave of strikes began in defiance of the bureaucracy’s strict law prohibiting any independent workers struggles. In 1986 there were 851 strikes. By 1987, the number had quadrupled to 1,570 and involved 365,000 workers. By 1988, there were more than 2,000 walkouts. Faced with a united upsurge of the Yugoslav working class, the ruling bureaucracy set out in a calculated fashion to divert this movement by spreading chauvinism and ethnic hatred and accelerating the process of capitalist restoration.

The current leaders of the various national fragments of Yugoslavia—Tudjman in Croatia, Kucan in Slovenia, Izetbegovic in Bosnia and Milosevic in Serbia—are all ex-Stalinist bureaucrats. All of them have embraced the most reactionary forms of nationalism in order to divide the working class, while they seek to transform themselves into comprador capitalists, in service of one or another of the imperialist powers.

Imperialism cannot resolve the problems of Yugoslavia. It is the source of these problems. Moreover, nowhere on the globe have the problems of national divisions found a progressive solution under capitalism. On the contrary, everywhere capitalism in crisis is generating racism, national conflicts and ethnic hatreds.

Nationalism is the essential capitalist ideology. The emergence of the modem nation-state is itself inseparably linked to the rise of capitalism. Born as the result of the great bourgeois revolutions, nationalism once provided a means of economically uniting peoples who were divided under feudalism. It long ago turned into its opposite. The development of a world capitalist economy and the increasing global integration of production is now bursting against the old nation-state form. It is this fundamental contradiction which poses before mankind the threat of a third world war.

The odious policy of “ethnic cleansing” now being implemented by means of massacres and terror in Yugoslavia did not originate in the reactionary minds of Milosevic or Tudjman. Hitler carried out this policy in its most extreme form in the Holocaust of half a century ago. But in every capitalist country, this same repulsive program reemerges. Throughout Western Europe, there has been a growth of racist and nationalist movements such as the National Front of Le Pen in France calling for the expulsion of immigrant workers in the interests of “ethnic purity.”

In the US itself, racism and ethnic divisions assume ever more noxious forms. Three decades after the emergence of the mass civil rights movement, de facto racial segregation remains as severe as ever. Indeed, the bourgeois state and the capitalist parties openly base themselves on racial separation, adopting the perverse policy of redrawing congressional districts along purely racial and ethnic lines.

What possible solution then can imperialism offer the peoples of Yugoslavia? The only blueprint offered thus far has come from Britain’s Tory Foreign Minister Lord Carrington, the head of the London talks between the rival factions in Bosnia. His plan calls for the creation of ethnically homogeneous cantons within Bosnia. This would only ensure the continuation of the bloody ethnic rivalries which are presently tearing the country apart.

Moreover, there are historical precedents for such imperialist interventions in the name of pacifying national and ethnic rivalries. In the Congo it led to the murder of nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba and the imposition of a CIA-backed dictatorship. In Northern Ireland, the dispatching of the British army to “defend” the Catholic minority has resulted in more than two decades of military occupation, killings and terror against those who were supposed to be saved.

The bloody struggle in Yugoslavia cannot find a progressive solution through imperialist intervention or on the basis of capitalism. There is no instant, pragmatic policy which will achieve this goal.

The bitter ethnic conflicts which are wracking the region can only be overcome by counterposing against nationalism a higher principle, proletarian internationalism, based on a socialist program, which meets the common interests of workers of every nationality.

We call for the unity of all workers—Croat, Serb, Slovene, Moslem alike—in struggle against the nationalists and pogromists who are trying to drown the workers movement in blood. It is only the vacuum of leadership in the working class, created by the criminal betrayal of Stalinism, which has allowed fascist bands, recruited from among the petty bourgeoisie and lumpen, as well as the policemen of the old regime, to terrorize the entire population.

The working class must confront a bitter reality. The fate which has befallen the people of Sarajevo—war, homelessness, starvation and barbarism—is the fate which threatens workers of every country under capitalism.

Only the working class can lead humanity out of the madhouse which has been created by imperialism. Against the reactionary program of nationalism promoted by the capitalists and their lackeys in the labor movement, it must fight for the international unification of the proletariat in the common struggle to overthrow capitalism. Only through this struggle can a genuine democratic and progressive solution be found to the problems of national self-determination.

The struggle for this program can only be advanced through the building of a new, revolutionary leadership in the working class based on the program of world socialist revolution and the perspective of proletarian internationalism. There is only one such party in existence today: That is the world Trotskyist movement, the International Committee of the Fourth International and, in this country, the Workers League.