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Bosnia: A Reply to Mike Jones

AS A BOSNIAN refugee, I must place on record my abhorrence at the ill-conceived views expressed by Mike Jones in his article "Some Comments on the National Question in Yugoslavia" (What Next? No.9). There are many historical inaccuracies in his article that need to be addressed.

First, in his introduction Jones mentions that the Serbs were using the Greek language after the split in the Christian Church. It would be interesting to know the source of this fallacious information. The fact is that Serbs were using the old Slav and letters created by the first Slav scholars, Cyrillo (hence Cyrillic) and Metrolije. At that time the Croats were using Glagoljica, the first Croatian letters created by the first Croatian Church, who at the time were fighting against the influence of Rome. In Bosnia at this time there existed an original indigenous Bosnian Church led by Bogomils (named after their founder Bogomil),*[note] not under the influence of either Rome or Byzantium. In fact the Pope in 1102 had sent his representatives to the Bosnian king, Kulin Ban, demanding the abolition of the Bosnian Church. He threatened that if the demand was not met he would send his army to exterminate the Bosnian population. (This bears a striking comparison to the events following the breaking up of Yugoslavia in recent years.) The majority of Bogomils were exiled to Spain and southern Italy. This enabled the spread of Roman and Byzantine influence in Bosnia.

Second, Mike Jones also declares that after the Turkish conquest in 1463 many people converted to Islam due to the lack of a strong Bosnian Church. This is not strictly true. The fact is that the Turkish conquest enabled the return of the exiled Bogomils from Spain and southern Italy. The Turks also offered "equal opportunities" to the conquered Bosnians and the possibility of attaining the highest position in the establishment, on condition they accepted Islam. Such a situation existed nowhere else in Europe, where advancement did not relate to religion but birthright. (I also assume this was often just a formal declaration without religious police to check whether theory and practice coincided.) As an example of this I mention Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic (originally a Bosnian Serb), who became second in command to the Turkish sultan, whilst his brother Makonije Sokolovic was a patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. There was a somewhat similar scenario in Serbia although not in the same numbers, where many Serbs converted to Islam.

Third, as to the question of "nationality", before the annexation of Bosnia to Austria, the Bosnian language and nationality existed. The population identified themselves as Bosniaks, i.e. Bosniak Orthodox, Bosniak Catholic and Bosniak Muslim. After the annexation the Austrians prohibited this. However the relationship among these sections was very good, particularly between the Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, who jointly had fought against the Austrians. In the first Yugoslav state founded in 1918 under the hegemony of Serbia, Bosnian identity was also denied, as well as Montenegrin and Macedonian.

Perhaps Mike Jones was unaware that in Bosnia the "Muslims" did not represent a religion per se, but, contrary to his understanding, they had all the characteristics of a nationality. In truth the majority did not approve of the religious tag because they were not religious people in the accepted definition of the term. However, in order to crush this development in Titoís Yugoslavia, the term Bosnian, although used frequently among the people, was not officially accepted by the Communist government. It would seem therefore that Mike Jonesís attempt to make a strong point about the non-existence of a Bosnian nationality is a case of the wish being father to the thought, to coin a phrase.

Fourth, for Mike Jones to state that there was no "ethnic cleansing" is a monumental absurdity when the barbaric atrocities were witnessed by the world. (His declaration that there was no ethnic cleansing because they all belonged to the same ethnic group is a shameful exercise in sophistry.) When expatiating about the "systematic rape", and declaring it was a myth, Mike Jones adopts a callous stance. What happened was to him just another statistic and no more. This may be the case, but it certainly is not so to the 20,000 women whose lives were forever destroyed. I am positive that if he had female members of his family subjected to the abominations suffered by the women of Bosnia he might have seen things differently.

Fifth, Mike Jones has openly declared his support for the Serbian point of view. He states: "The Serb case has not been understood"; "a racist caricature has been portrayed in much of the liberal press ... which gives no rational explanation of Serb feelings". I have no argument with this, but he totally ignores how Slobodan Milosevic whipped up these emotions to serve the nasty nationalistic motives to build a Greater Serbia. All of this is on record, and Mike Jones cannot be ignorant of it. For someone who I assume was schooled in the historical materialist method of analysis, how could he have allowed himself into being an apologist for the vilest form of quasi-fascism of this decade? If any caricaturing has taken place it has been that of the Muslims being caricatured as fundamentalists.

Why then, if I may ask, has Mike Jones identified himself with the aggressors of Serbian nationalism, despite the abundant evidence of atrocities and outrages, and rather prefers to deny they occurred, and defends a cause that stinks to high heaven? I believe he does so because like the Milosevices and the Mladices, he regards the Serbs as defending Western Christian values at the outpost of Europe against the advancing hordes of militant Islam. For in fact the war in Bosnia eventually degenerated into a religious conflict with Russia and Greece also supporting their co-religionists. But when Muslim volunteers go in support of the beleaguered Bosnians there is an outcry, even from the left, which Mike Jones echoes.

Sixth, Mike Jonesís views on the Second World War are also biased and one-sided. Official statistics (as described in the memoirs of Vladimir Dedijer, who was Titoís private secretary) show that percentage-wise the Muslims suffered on both fronts, as they were massacred not only by the Nazis but also by the Serbian fascist nationalists (the Chetniks). For many years this was kept a secret in the new Yugoslavia so as not to destroy the myth of a great Serbian anti-fascist movement in the Second World War.

In trying to explicate such a complex situation as exists in Yugoslavia, Mike Jones should, at least, have tried to consult the people concerned. Had he done so, he might have come to less facile conclusions.

Professor S. Bajric
(Professor Bajric formerly taught at Doboj College, where he was head of History.)

Note: * The name, meaning "pleasing to God", given to Bosnian followers of the Manichean heresy which thrived in the 10-15th centuries, especially in Bosnia, where espousal of the doctrine was closely tied to a desire for a national Bosnian Church free from Rome and Constantinople. [Back to text]

The SWP and Democracy

TOWARDS THE end of his article "The Case for the SWP" (What Next? No.8), Ian Birchall brings up the question of democracy in the organisation. As a former member of the SWP, the only far left organisation in which Iíve been involved, it is difficult for me to compare it with the practice in other organisations. Certainly I think that smaller groups who would like to portray the SWP as totally undemocratic are wrong. But there is undoubtedly a strong bureaucratic tendency in the organisation.

The point I want to deal with is Ianís statement that he has opposed the leadership on both tactical questions and theoretical grounds. This is an interesting point because I think Ian fails to differentiate between the kinds of disagreement that can occur in the party. I think there are roughly speaking three types of disagreement.

The first is when a person disagrees with the organisation, but the point of disagreement is very much a side issue and not what I would call a fundamental issue. Dissent of this sort is something the SWP leadership is usually prepared to live with.

Secondly, there is a disagreement where the questions are fundamental but the person(s) involved ultimately want to make their peace with the organisation, which will obviously influence how they pursue their disagreement with the leadership. I believe that Ian fits into that category, as does John Molyneux (who has differences over the issue of womenís oppression). These sort of dissenters will not disturb the leadership too much, as they will always stop short of pushing their disagreements to the point of a split or expulsion.

The third category is those who are prepared to pursue the fundamental disagreement to a conclusion where they may break from the party or put themselves in a position where they could be expelled. It is this section who will feel the weight of the party bureaucracy in the SWP. If you are in this category you find there is very little chance of getting your views aired among the rest of the membership. Such an airing of views in any case only occurs in the period leading up to the party conference, through the internal bulletins, while the conference itself is always packed with members who are loyal to the leadership. In the discussions that do take place you face hardened cadres who are skilled at debating and who have no problem in caricaturing your arguments. So the chances of a meaningful debate are small, and those of winning a majority for your views approximately nil.

If Ian ever found himself in that third category, then I think he would have a rather less rosy view of the SWPís internal democracy.

Jon Trautman

The SWP and the Trade Unions

IAN BIRCHALL has long been "the SWP with a human face". But even as talented a writer as Ian has obviously struggled to tell us all how misunderstood the SWP is ("The Case for the SWP", What Next? No.8). Unfortunately for Ian, there are too many on the left who have been through the SWP mill and so know only too well what the reality is (unfortunately for me, Iím one of them). However, to his credit Ian is one of the very few SWP members who will debate with the left, and so he deserves a reply on that basis alone. To keep this reply short I will stick to a discussion on the SWP in relation to work in the unions í an acid test for any self-proclaimed revolutionary organisation.

Ian claims ten thousand members for the SWP, and this sounds fairly impressive in these days of a withered left in general. But the reality, as Ian must surely know, is that the organisation has nothing like that level of members. In fact I would be surprised if they had at present anything more than three thousand. So why tell fibs? Well, maybe Ian isnít, in his own mind. After all, in a period when a member of the SWP is anyone who turns up at a public meeting or reads its paper, then any kind of inflated figure is possible. However, is this any way to organise a revolutionary party!

The reason, I believe, for having such a loose peripheral membership is to complement the other sides of the SWP. On the next level up you have a docile long suffering middle cadre who have swallowed so many of Tony Cliffís infamous turns that they are clearly incapable of independent thought. Then, at the top, are the inner circle, made up in the main of long serving hacks who are unaccountable to the wider membership (through the use of tightly enforced slates and non-secret ballots to elect the Central Committee, and the non-elected all-powerful full time organisers who act as Cliff s shock troops).

The undemocratic internal structure of the SWP, with its vertical organisation used to enforce the will of the CC, leads to an inability to really come to grips with principled labour movement work. What we are left with instead is a group which survives on stunts and endless lectures on party building and which alienates serious union activists (how many Liverpool dockers did they recruit!). The result of this is, by any standards, some pretty inept work within the unions. For example, despite now being probably the largest political current in a lot of unions (most notably Unison and PCS), their impact ranges from non-existent, in the case of the Left Unity broad left within PCS, to at times dangerous. This latter trait is shown in their leadership of the recent strike in Islington.

Islington could have been a good test of how far revolutionaries could lead a strike against a nasty New Labour controlled council. In fact, it was possible to make this an official Unison dispute against redundancies. But the patient non-sectarian work needed to make the strike a success was beyond the capabilities of the SWP. After all, hadnít Lord Cliff spoken the Word, and the Word according to Cliff (for the next five minutes at any rate) was that a renewed militancy was on the cards, and unofficial strikes were the order of the day. Well, an unofficial dispute sounds so much better, so much more r-r-revolutionary!

This is not to underestimate the rotten role of trade union bureaucrats, but in the black and white world of the SWP (who had they have been around at the time would no doubt have refused membership to union officials such as Jim Larkin!), any form of tactics short of mass pickets and spontaneous walkouts canít even be considered. This lack of tactical sense meant that 12 strikers, including SWP members, were sacked in May. The end result is that the entire council workforce is now weakened and an important layer of militants has been removed. A good result for the Islington Blairites, but not for the class.

I suspect that opposition to the SWPís stunt in Islington will be dismissed as opportunism, or adapting to the bureaucracy. However, this would be ironic given the open opportunism shown over many years by the SWP in the unions. Have you ever noticed how union leaders tend not to care about the SWP? The simple reason for this is that the SWP are no threat to them, combining as they do abstract propaganda with a refusal to challenge the bureaucrats. There are not even any serious attempts at building rank-and-file groups in the unions, which remains an essential task for any group of revolutionaries. In fact a few years ago when the SWP beat Militant to gain control of the old NALGO Broad Left, a potentially important organisation, they made no attempts to build a rank-and-file structure at all, and merely turned it into a sectarian SWP recruiting front for a few months before letting it disintegrate altogether. Even in the NUT, where they have in the past achieved some influence, their sectarianism towards the rest of the left activists has been central to the failure to build a united left caucus within the union. On the wider level, the recent (and again inept) attempt to set up a rival organisation to the SLP-led anti-union laws Reclaim Our Rights/United Campaign shows again both SWP sectarian isolationism (an inability to risk letting their members fight the SLP Stalinists), and their rank opportunism (TUC bureaucrats on the platforms of their own public meetings).

At a time when most of the small international SWP satellites have split Ė it seems over London-based authoritarianism Ė the British party appears to be more isolated than ever. This is more than just the material circumstances of a low level of struggle by the class. The leadership, no doubt well aware of the lack of serious political understanding of most of their members, seems content to try and wall them off from contact with the rest of the left in the labour movement. The history of the British left is littered with sectarian organisations who tried to do the same thing. Such sect-like behaviour merely means that when the splits do occur in the SWP the self-destruction will be all the more complete. I do not welcome this prospect; the experience of the WRP and Militant is that most members become lost to revolutionary politics altogether. However, the continuation of a sectarian tradition that stretches back to Hyndmanís SDF in the nineteenth century must be ended if we are to build a real challenge to the capitalist system, and its agents in the labour movement. The SWP have proved time and again that they are incapable of this task.

Jim Dye