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The Limitations of the "Classical Marxist Tradition"

John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition, Routledge, 1998. Paperback, 314 pp, Ł14.99.

Reviewed by Jonathan Joseph

IN THIS book on Marxist philosophy John Rees, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), tries to trace a "red thread" from Hegel through Marx and Engels to Lenin, Lukács and Trotsky. The material inside the book is interesting in any case, but two aspects of the author’s project are particularly revealing.

First, John Rees explicitly argues that the "classical Marxist tradition" is a Hegelian tradition. The majority of sources are from Hegelian Marxists such as Lukács, Gramsci, Plekhanov, Lefebvre and even the likes of George Novack and Michael Löwy. Marx, Engels and Lenin are pushed further into the Hegel camp while the chapter on Trotsky argues that he should be placed "very firmly in the ‘Hegelian’ Marxist tradition" (p.263). Non-Hegelian arguments are given no space except for a derisory "refutation" in the conclusion.

Second, the book further buttresses the view that the SWP draws its main philosophical inspiration from the writings of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács and his theories of human consciousness and reification. The chapter on Lukács is by far the longest and the defence of his positions by far the most vigorous despite what could be considered problems in fitting Lukács into the "classical Marxist" strait-jacket.

Rees’s book therefore deserves to be seen within the context of the Hegelian tradition. While the first chapter is a well informed and well argued outline of Hegel’s philosophy, it offers only one substantial criticism – that Hegel was an idealist who focused on the development of human consciousness while Marx was a materialist who focused on the development of human practice. I will later argue that by embracing Lukács’s interpretation of Hegel, Rees too makes consciousness his main focus.

Following Bhaskar, I would argue that the three main elements of the Hegelian dialectic are (1) realised idealism, (2) spiritual monism and (3) immanent teleology. Rees accepts the first aspect of this, but fails to challenge the second, where non-Hegelian Marxists have correctly argued for a stratified and differentiated totality that cannot be reduced to one over-arching principle of movement, or one simple expressive totality that is reflected in each of the parts. As for (3), the teleological element (inherent historical purpose or design) of Hegel’s dialectic has never been removed from "classical Marxism", whether it be in the form of Plekhanov’s stages of history, Trotsky’s imminent collapse of capitalism or Lukács’s unified subject-object. Rees’s account reinforces this teleology.

The chapter on Marx and Engels argues the familiar line that Marx took over Hegel’s dialectic and turned it into a materialist one. This misses out on the fact that in Marx’s later works like Capital, the dialectic is applied in a very specific way to the various features of the capitalist system. The grand historical schema of Hegel is not simply "materialised", it is abandoned.

Rees also attempts to defend Engels’ notion of the dialectic of nature. His argument seems to revolve around the statement that "the alternative to seeing both nature and history as dialectical in structure is to assume that nature has a series of laws totally separate from those governing human society. The result is either to reduce nature to an unknowable realm (a Kantian thing-in-itself) or to abandon the theory of evolution, because it assumes that humans did grow out of nature and are still part of nature" (p.276).

It is clearly the case that nature does have a series of "laws" which are independent of society which would continue to operate if societies did not exist. Of course these laws carry over into human society because this is emergent out of nature. But society has its own complex dynamics which are not reducible to the nature out of which it emerges, but take their own specific forms. In contrast, what the notion of the dialectic of nature attempts to do is to project onto nature concepts that only make sense in the particular context of the social domain.

A realist Marxism would indeed agree that human society grew out of nature. But it would study this is a naturalistic way by examining natural structures and "laws" and assessing social developments in terms of a concept of emergence that sees society as a domain with its own specific dynamics which are not reducible to the natural world out of which it emerges. This basic distinction clearly does not reduce nature to an unknowable realm; it simply insists that the dialectical concepts used to study society are not adequate for studying nature.

Rees is palpably unable to offer any evidence that the dialectic of nature adds to our scientific understanding of the natural world. Indeed his only real defence of this position ends up abandoning objectivity for an inter-subjective position. His main argument for the dialectical evolution of nature is the development of human consciousness. There is no mention of the development of the material structures or practices within which human consciousness takes shape.

The focus on human consciousness rather than material structures is not accidental. It is the result of an acceptance of Lukács’s Hegelian Marxism.

Lukács substitutes the Hegelian Absolute with the identical subject-object of history. Therefore, instead of seeing history as a process culminating in the realisation of Absolute Spirit, Lukács sees history as a process culminating in the self-realisation of the human subject (represented by the proletariat). Like Hegel, each differentiation in human consciousness is merely a moment in the final act of self-realisation. Finally "the act of consciousness overthrows the objective form of its object" (p.222).

Instead of seeing class relations as given, consciousness comes to see them as historical, eventually leading to an overcoming of alienation. Like Hegel, the final stage is the reaching of a total viewpoint (p.223). Rees fails to challenge the idealistic nature of any of this. He argues "a change in workers’ perceptions ... can be the result of action, but it is also the precondition of further class-conscious action". This is of course true in a sense, but it one-sidedly promotes consciousness as determining action rather than action determining consciousness.

The influence of Lukács’s subjectivism can be felt throughout the book. Although the book claims to be a classical Marxist defence of Lukács’s ideas, it is more properly a Lukácsian defence of classical Marxism.

The fact that Lukács makes no analysis of social structures is ignored. For Rees the weakness of Lukács is "that he did not extend his general framework into a sufficiently concrete account of the historically developed forms of contradictory consciousness" (p.240). But the point is that this is due to Lukács’s over-arching Hegelian schema. Rees attacks Althusserian alternatives as sterile structuralism, but the point is that in Lukács there is no analysis of any structures or the differentiated material processes and practices that give rise to the consciousness he is so keen to emphasise.

This leaves Rees with a simplistic view of ideology. He argues that "concepts which arise from direct interaction with the world cannot be false. But, once classes arise (and with them the separation of intellectuals...), the possibility of mistaken generalisations, false consciousness, and so on arises" (pp.92-3). The trouble with this view is that it reduces ideology to the ideas spread by the ruling class. But while this is one aspect of ideology, it is also clear that Marx had a conception of ideology as emerging from our relations with material practices. So whether or not classes spread false ideas, it is also the case that these "false" (or more to the point, partial) ideas stem from an engagement in the material practices of the production process itself. This is the basis of Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism.

This failure to give ideas a material location is also reflected in Rees’s theory of working class radicalism. The book argues that the revolutionary basis of the working class is founded on the fact that workers experience, as no other class does, the reality of exploitation and that they therefore have the best vantage point to see society more clearly (p.219). This is a rather crude workerism which excludes other oppressed classes like the peasantry as well as the specially oppressed. Because workers are at the cutting edge of commodity production this does not necessarily give them a more radical consciousness (as Marx explains by his notion of ideology). The real point is that the place that workers occupy in the production process gives them a revolutionary potential that no other class has. This potential has to be seen in terms of their structural location and not just in terms of the ideas in people’s heads.

Yet the short conclusion is the only part of the book to deal with structuralist theories, and then only to rubbish them. While the attacks on postmodernism and "analytical Marxism" are amusing and well made, the attacks on the Althusserian tradition is Rees at his worst.

As I wrote two issues ago, the resort to calling Althusser a Stalinist is the stereotype behaviour of a bankrupt "classical Marxist". The publication of Althusser’s early writings now shows that he had a Hegelian and humanist phase which coincided with his strongest identification with Stalinism. (See the review of The Spectre of Hegel, in What Next? No.8.)

While this Stalinism was indeed never broken from, Althusser did emerge as something of a critic inside the PCF. This does not amount to much, but he was hardly their "official philosopher" or leader of their anti-humanist assault as Rees tries to imply (pp.291-2).

Sadly, this part of the conclusion is "classical Marxism" at its worst, with its dogmatism, philistinism and caricature. Rees’s dismissal of structuralist Marxism (without writing a coherent argument against it) is dishonest as he knows full well that a number of theoreticians from Trotskyist backgrounds have been heavily influenced by structuralism. This list includes not only Perry Anderson (ex-International Marxist Group ’ IMG), Norman Geras (ex-IMG), Andrew Collier (ex-SWP), Terry Eagleton (ex-Workers Socialist League), but also of course the SWP’s own Alex Callinicos. He surely must be squirming at Rees’s conclusion.

The constant feature of this book is its lack of a structural analysis of any kind when there are plenty of theories to engage with, like the critical realist school (supported by Callinicos), which rejects Althusser’s approach by restoring the role of human agency in a reproductive and transformatory capacity. But then Rees’s "classical Marxist" philosophy with its Lukácsian emphasis does best match the politics of the political group to which he belongs.

The SWP’s simplistic solutions to complex social problems – racism: black and white unite and fight; Ireland: "Catholics" and "Protestants" unite (with no position on the "peace process"); women’s liberation: socialism not feminism; Bosnia: plague on all your houses; USSR: state capitalism; Labour Party: lobby the conference etc., etc. – all these are underpinned by a philosophical viewpoint. This is the over-simplified mono-linear theory of history developed by Hegel and the Second International, the lack of a structural analysis of differentiated and stratified relationships (like race and gender, imperialism, labourism etc.) and the main focus on consciousness as drawn from Lukács’s writings on reification.

This may have read like a highly critical review, but I will still end by saying that I had an enjoyable time reading this book. John Rees has given an excellent outline of the "classical Marxist tradition" and its doctrine of dialectical materialism. Unfortunately, that is precisely its problem.

EMU: A Threat to the Working Class

John Grahl, After Maastricht: A Guide to European Monetary Union, Lawrence and Wishart, 1997. Paperback, 264pp, Ł11.99.

Reviewed by Bernard H. Moss

THE EUROPEAN single currency threatens to destroy the instruments of national fiscal and monetary policy that were a primary means of protection for workers in a capitalist economy. What socialists have long warned against as being implicit in the constitution of the European Community – a bankers’ Europe – has now been literally realized. Monetary policy is in the hands of an independent central bank whose only aim is price stability. This arrangement has been adopted without democratic discussion or debate and with the assent of European social democracy over the objections from stray voices on the extreme right and left.

This book by the British economist John Grahl is one of the best explanations of European Monetary Union (EMU) available. It is also one of the most balanced – one might also say two-headed – apologias for it. For Grahl recognizes nearly all the faults of EMU yet ultimately defends it as the only feasible response to financial globalization. He views globalization as an unstoppable force that was unleashed by the floating of the dollar in the 1970s. The decisive event was the Volcker shock of 1979 which by raising interest rates too high for governments to borrow forced austerity and deflation on the world.

Other countries like the British followed suit, ending exchange controls and raising interest rates. Even the French were forced to reverse their interventionist policies and adopt competitive deflation as their watchword. The growth of the global financial market made it possible to circumvent national regulation and thus made such regulation less tenable. So was set in motion a cumulative process whereby the emergence of global financial markets induced national de-regulation, which further strengthened the forces of globalization. The single European market and currency was a regional accelerator of this process.

Globalization threatened the forms of national regulation that Grahl admits were still fairly effective in stimulating growth – exchange rate adjustment and financial intermediation by which is meant privileged credit relationships between the state, banks and industry. Devaluation by lowering real interest rates was effective in limiting long-term unemployment; one trick of the German miracle was the undervaluation of its currency. The uncertainties and risk attending floating exchange rates were not detrimental to trade or growth. Public spending in larger states was still capable of stimulating activity. The privileged relationships among the state, banks and industry assured quality control and a long-term perspective, which maintained a high rate of investment in countries like France, Germany and Japan.

Financial de-regulation, by prying open closed circuits and submitting all financial instruments to the arbitrage of a single market, was supposed to cheapen the cost of credit. For reasons that are not completely clear to Grahl – the volatility of short-term loans, increased public borrowing, diminished savings? – it had the opposite effect, making investment more difficult. Governments also raised interest rates to quell inflation. As the burden of debt servicing increased, pressure was brought to bear on public expenditure. The hike of German interest rates after 1987 turned the Exchange Rate Mechanism into an instrument of competitive deflation, causing recession in 1990-91, dampening down growth and increasing unemployment in the 1990s.

EMU was constructed on the basis of this deflationary mechanism. The Treaty of Maastricht adopted the German model of an independent central bank whose only aim was price stability. The treaty forbade the bank from fulfilling any regulatory functions. It cannot seek growth or employment objectives by setting an optimal inflation target. It cannot finance public deficits. In the event of a crisis it cannot act as a lender of last resort to stop a downward spiral of defaults and bankruptcies.

The major dampener after 1992 was the Maastricht convergence criteria, especially the 3% limit on budgetary deficit, designed to prevent inflation of the currency. To meet this criterion, countries could either raise taxes or cut expenditures, but in a globalized financial market governments feared loss of investment from higher taxes and most chose expenditure cuts, especially social cuts, the largest in history in the case of Germany. Indeed, members proved incapable of agreeing on even minimum levels of taxation to prevent a race to the bottom.

A major argument for the single market and currency concerned the growth potential of economies of scale on the American model, but Grahl concedes that the main elements of this model, labor mobility and fiscal transfers, do not exist in Europe. In their absence wider markets will only aggravate the growing inequality between the technologically advanced metropolises and the backward hinterlands. Somehow, rather miraculously, because the alternative to instability is too painful to contemplate, European government will, Grahl thinks, take over the fiscal and other regulatory functions of the nation state, changing the identities of citizens in the process.

Grahl admits the costs of EMU as well as the benefits of national regulation, yet stubbornly insists that a return to the latter, which he demonizes as autarchy, is impossible and that the single currency is the only way forward. While criticizing the speed and intensity of deflationary adjustment under EMU, he largely concurs with its medium-term goal of budgetary balance. His main justification is that the European project is the most realistic way of exercising control over global economic forces. The EU, he thinks, will be forced to speak with one voice in international relations, opening the way for economic coordination and cooperation with the other major players, the US and Japan.

Grahl’s hopes have a deracinated utopian quality that reminds one of Kautsky’s prognostication of world peace through trade on the eve of World War I. Globalization is seen as an ineluctable international process, not as the outcome of real class battles fought in member states, in which social democracy defected and the left was defeated over working-class issues.

Competition among the euro, the dollar and yen, each with its weakness, is far more likely to lead to hostility and a struggle for supremacy than to cooperation; in any event there is no reason to believe that a dollar-euro duopoly will be any less volatile than trading in twenty major currencies. Nor is a common foreign and security policy likely to emerge in the EU; each member state still retains enough sovereignty to conduct its own defense, foreign, social and even – within contested limits – fiscal policy. The EU budget remains paltry compared with those of the member states, and the trend is toward a re-nationalization of resources and power not to federalism

Despite professed concern for the real economy, Grahl sticks to the level of finance, ignoring the crisis of productivity and profitability that lies behind EMU. The Maastricht Treaty formalizes a laissez-faire model of the economy which was already implicit in the founding EU treaties. The aim is to destroy those pockets of market protection and resistance which enabled workers to enjoy some fruits of expansion, thereby restoring previous levels of profitability. EMU places all the burden of adjustment on labor. Employers joined by the Commission see it as a way of putting downward pressure on wages and social benefits.

Toward the end Grahl discloses what is perhaps his decisive reason for supporting EMU, his fear of revolution. The ruling classes have invested a great deal of resources and political capital in EMU, which have included great sacrifices from working people. Its failure would provoke popular revolt comparable to that against governments that are overthrown for bringing on economic and military catastrophe. Grahl says that he wants to fight to reform EMU, introducing elements of social regulation, but as with other social democrats his efforts will be constrained by his fear of smashing the EMU machine, his fear of instability.

In the EU as elsewhere we face the paradox that the best reformists may be the revolutionaries, the greatest internationalists those who are most rooted in the nation. It is those socialists who lean on the nation state, where hegemony is organized and where labor can best exercise its power, who have the best chance of regulating the market and transforming Europe.

Kosova in Historical Perspective

Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, Macmillan, 1998. Hardback, 492pp, Ł20.00.

Reviewed by Nick Davies

ONE RESULT of the destruction of Yugoslavia was a plethora of new books on the subject, ranging widely in their quality and scope. One of the most rewarding and interesting products of this publishing mini-boom was Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia: A Short History. It was with more regret than reluctance that I realised that this fellow of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge and contributor to the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph stood head and shoulders above the facile sloganising resorted to by sections of the revolutionary left, most of which displayed an inability to come to grips with the issues or their historical background, and failed or refused (with notable and honourable exceptions) to defend the multi-ethnic workers’ centres in Bosnia against nationalist terror. It is grimly ironic that in its philistinism and inertia much of the left frequently recycled elements of the mythology of both Serb and Croat nationalism on, for example, the conversion of the Muslim Slavs, their role during World War II, or the supposed imminence of a Muslim fundamentalist state in Bosnia, and that it has taken a historian who makes clear his hostility to Marxism to show that these myths are just that.

Malcolm’s latest book, Kosovo: A Short History is timely, its appearance earlier this year coinciding with the escalation of the insurrection there. (He uses the spelling "Kosovo" on the grounds that this is the form most commonly used in English-language publications.) Malcolm is preoccupied with the role of national mythology, principally Serbian but also Albanian, in the respective nation-building projects – projects which in Kosova overlap and are in conflict, despite the abundant evidence of previous peaceful coexistence between Albanians and Slavs. He examines the way that the existence of national mythologies prevents an understanding of Kosova’s past, and therefore its present, and how mythologies are used to create and justify inter-ethnic conflict. The extensive bibliography and the painstaking approach indicate a thoroughness in his attempts to debunk or at least challenge the tangle of myths which are rooted in this small and impoverished area of the southern Balkans.

At the heart of Serbian national mythology is the myth of the Battle of Kosovo. Without exception, Serb nationalists wallow in this myth. In his book War in Eastern Europe (1916) John Reed records how baby boys would be greeted with "Hail little avenger of Kosovo!" It was in keeping with this tradition that Slobodan Milosevic chose the supposed grievances of the Serb population in Kosova, and the 600th anniversary of the battle, marked in 1989 with lavish ceremonial, to discard the rhetoric of socialism and re-invent himself as a Serb nationalist. The official version has it that the Christian Serbs were routed by the Muslim Ottoman Turks, but that before the battle, the Serb Prince Lazar was visited by St Elijah in the form of a falcon, and was offered a choice between an earthly kingdom and a heavenly one. Like a good Christian warrior, Lazar chose the latter, preferring an honourable defeat to a shameful life, and so making, on behalf of all Serbs, a covenant with God. In fact, as Malcolm demonstrates, very little is known about the battle, except that both Prince Lazar and his opposite number, the Sultan Murad were killed. The size and composition of the respective armies varied wildly, according to the source. There is evidence that Albanians fought alongside Lazar, a point ignored or played down by Serb nationalist historians. Even the result is in doubt; some sources say an Ottoman victory, some a stalemate, and some even say it was a partial victory for the Serbs. Many sources are rooted in the folk-epic tradition, and are therefore highly stylised and mythologised at the expense of any historical analysis. They focus on the psychological and military confrontation between the two military leaders, and on the compelling themes of courage, betrayal and martyrdom. The earliest written versions of these epics date from the eighteenth century. They play an important role in the creation of a Serbian historical-national consciousness in the nineteenth century, forged among Serbian Orthodox Christians in the struggle against Ottoman rule. Conveniently, of course, the enemy is the same in each case. Malcolm points out how the cult of Prince Lazar came into its own when Serbia transformed itself into a kingdom in 1882, just in time for the 500th anniversary of the battle. As for Lazar’s covenant with God, this did not make an appearance until the nineteenth century, when it featured in songs collected by the Serb folklorist Vuk Karadzic. Like most medieval national epics, the myth of Kosovo is essentially a nineteenth-century concoction.

Malcolm looks critically at the way nationalist historians have treated the rise of the modern states of Serbia and Albania, rejecting what he says is a simplistic view of Serbs and Albanians conducting a straightforward fight for national liberation against the repressive Ottoman Empire, and, as regards Kosovo, the view that the Christian Serbs were repressed by the Muslim Albanians. Much of the hostility towards Ottoman rule, shown by Albanians as much as Serbs, was against conscription and taxation – resulting from measures designed to modernise the Ottoman Empire after 1839 – rather than Ottoman rule per se. There was also resentment against the religious and economic privileges of the Greek speaking inhabitants of the Empire. He points out, correctly, that there was widespread tolerance, and certainly no systematic oppression of the non-Muslims, although there were some irksome disabilities: for example, a Christian’s evidence was given less weight in a court of law than that of a Muslim, and the payment by non-Muslims of a cizye or poll tax. (Muslims were also under a duty to pay taxes for charitable purposes, however.)

The nineteenth century saw the first real national, ethnographical arguments about who came to Kosova first, and who was in the majority. Evaluating the evidence can be difficult. The Ottomans defined subject peoples by their religion, not their language. Therefore, they referred to "Muslims", rather than Turks and Albanians. Not all Muslims in Kosova were Albanians, although most were. Some were Muslim Slavs, and many of these ended up in Kosova as refugees from independent Serbia after 1817. In particular, the expansion of the Serbian state southwards in 1878 was heralded, under orders from Belgrade, by the mass expulsion of Muslims, and the destruction of their houses and mosques. About 50,000 of these Muhaxhirs settled in Kosova. They were more hostile to the local Serbs than the Albanians had ever been, resulting in an emigration of Serbs out of Kosova, although on nothing like the scale alleged by Serb historians. After all sorts of statistical adjustments, Malcolm decides that the Albanians were the majority community in the nineteenth century. In so doing, he takes a swipe at the Serbian nationalist concept of the Arnautas, or "Albanian Slavs". Allegedly, these are Serbs who have become Albanianised, but are "really" Serbs. As Malcolm points out, this has probably happened, and in the other direction too. Ethnic groups in Kosova are not watertight compartments and there has been mutual assimilation across linguistic and ethnic barriers. Serbian nationalist historians cite in support of their reactionary theory the presence of traces of Orthodox Christian ritual in the religious practices of the Kosova Muslims. Malcolm ascribes this to a form of religious syncreticism, developed over centuries of close coexistence, and points out that according to the logic of the Arnautas theory, any English person called, for example, Beaumont, should "really" be reclassified as Norman French!

As if to prove his evenhandedness, Malcolm examines critically the period from 1978-1912, known to Albanian nationalist historians as the Rilindje Kombëtare, or "National Awakening". He challenges the belief that this period was characterised by a national striving for the goal of independence, historically continuous and ideologically consistent, and only opposed by a few reactionaries. He cites in support of this view the opposition, common to Catholics and Muslims in Kosova and northern Albania, to attempts to modernise the Ottoman Empire, and the project to create a autonomous Catholic principality in northern Albania, both of which coexisted with the vision shared by intellectuals, mainly based in France, Italy, or Istanbul of a fully independent Albania. Malcolm sees the 1878 League of Prizren, often regarded as the first manifestation of all-Albanian nationalism, and which of course was in Kosova, as a traditional gathering of religious leaders and clan chiefs in the tradition of the inter-clan councils or Kuvends. Most of those present were from Kosova and the remote, northern Albanian highlands. Their vision was a world away from that of the pro-independence intellectuals. According to Malcolm, its declarations are silent on reforms or schools, but voluble on loyalty to the Sultan and the preservation of the traditional clan codes. In other words, its message was one of conservatism and not radical nationalism, which was better represented in the southern committee of the League. The same seems to apply to the League of Pec (Peje in Albanian) of 1899 which professed loyalty to the Sultan, and called for the restoration of "old Albania", the suspension of blood feuds and the preservation of the clan-based legal code.

According to Malcolm, the coming to power of the Young Turks in 1908 became the focus of opposition in Albania. The Young Turks promoted the centralisation of the Empire, and of Ottoman nationalism. Albanian leaders enjoyed the autonomy that relative decentralisation gave them. Malcolm maintains that the Albanian leaders were won to the Young Turks’ project of a constitution by means of a blatant deception as to what it involved. After realising that they had been diddled, the Albanians embarked, in 1910 and 1911, on uncoordinated revolts in Kosova and the northern highlands. Even then, the Red Book confined its demands to the local use of locally raised taxes, respect for traditional and religious customs, and that local officials be Albanian speakers. The Albanian national movement, if it can be called that, appears from Malcolm’s sources to have been a coalition between nationalism in the south, and conservatism in the north and in Kosova. Only with the renewed, and successful revolt in the spring of 1912, which began in Kosova, was the demand for independence raised instead of a declaration of loyalty to the Sultan. However, before the newly won de facto independence could be recognised, and because of the threat it posed to Serbian expansionism, Serbia pounced on Kosova as part of its conquest, with Bulgaria and Greece, of Ottoman Macedonia. Solemn commemorations at Kosovo Polje followed the destruction of Albanian villages. As Malcolm acknowledges, one of the first to tell the tale of Serbian brutality in the region was Trotsky, then a reporter for Kievskaya Mysl, who commented: "The Serbs in Old Serbia, in their national endeavour to correct data in the ethnographical statistics which are not quite favourable to them, are engaged quite simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population" (Trotsky, Balkan Wars, Pathfinder, p.286).

One of the things which makes this book interesting is the author’s frequent excursions into some of the more recondite aspects of Balkan history, such as the debate on the possible origins of the Albanian language, the Albanian tradition of blood feuds, and the Albanian crypto-Catholics who, for generations professed Islam, but were secret Catholics. Into this category, arguably, is the guerilla warfare waged by rebels known as Kaçaks in the years immediately following the end of World War I when it became clear that the independent Albania recognised by the great powers in 1913 would retain more or less the same borders and that Kosova, "redeemed" by Serbia, would be in the new kingdom of Yugoslavia. The conditions of the Albanians in Kosova appear to have been grim. According to the author, by 1930, there were no Albanian schools in Kosova, and there is evidence that schools had in fact been closed, resulting in 90% illiteracy among Albanians. There were no Albanian language publications, although other minority languages were represented. In a bid to change the demographic composition of the region, there were attempts at large-scale colonisation by Serbs and Montenegrins who were given grants of land. According to the author, these newcomers were resented as much by native Serbs as by Albanians. A concomitant of the colonisation project was attempts to force Albanians to emigrate. A variant of this, which never got off the ground due to the outbreak of World War II, was a plan to deport the entire Albanian Muslim population to Turkey. In any event, the Kaçaks had been neutralised by the mid-1920s. The Albanian King Zog cut off their supply lines as the price for Yugoslav support in the coup (also supported by the British embassy in Tirana, although Malcolm doesn’t mention this) which brought him to power, and threw out the short-lived administration of Fan Noli, the only Albanian government until 1944 to attempt any kind of land reform. Nevertheless, a strong sense of grievance outlived the Kaçaks. Malcolm is probably correct when he says that the widespread collaboration with the Italian occupiers was due to the unification of most of Kosova with Italian-occupied Albania in 1941, accompanied by shrewdly implemented measures to Albanianise the region, rather than ideological identification with Italian fascism or the Axis war aims. To support this view, Malcolm cites the failure by German or Italian occupiers to raise a militarily effective Albanian fascist division (i.e. the Skanderbeg division). Neither the Serbian royalist Cetniks of Draza Mihailovic nor the Partisans of Tito made much headway in Kosova, both being seen as too "Slavic", and in the case of the former organisation this view was, of course, completely justified.

Malcolm is correct when he states that the decisive influence of the Yugoslav CP in the founding of the Albanian CP was the reason for the latter organisation’s failure or refusal to take up the Kosova question. (In accordance with the then Popular Front line of the Comintern, the Yugoslav CP was pursuing a policy of "national unity", contrary to its earlier position that Yugoslavia was a "prison house of nations".) Malcolm skims over the foundation of the Albanian CP and its implications for the Kosova question. He is presumably unaware of the detailed and vivid account by Sadik Premtaj, dating from 1949 and reprinted in Revolutionary History, vol.3 no.1 (1990). This account makes no bones about the role of the two Yugoslav Stalinists, Miladin Popovic and Dusan Mugosa, to the extent that Popovic nominated the first Central Committee. Malcolm, however, states that the extent of the role of the two Yugoslavs "is only now beginning to emerge with the publication of hitherto secret documents from the party archives" (p.302). Malcolm points out that the beneficiary of the Albanian CP’s Kosova position was, for a while, the nationalist organisation Balli Kombëtar. He describes it as being "left of centre" due to the influence of members and supporters of the Fan Noli government and presumably to the input of the Djarri group which was independent of the Albanian Stalinists and influenced in the 1930s by Greek Archeo-Marxism. An attempt at a common front between the CP and Balli Kombëtar was made in the Mukje Agreement of 1943; this foundered on the question of a plebiscite in Kosova to decide its status (Disnica, the CP representative agreed to this, only for his agreement to be disowned by the Yugoslavs and their then puppet Enver Hoxha) and, according to Malcolm, on the question of national independence vs. a Balkan federation (which was Yugoslav CP policy at the time. The disagreement heralded a declaration of war against the Ballists, who, as Malcolm somewhat coyly puts it, were "pushed" into a collaborationist position. According to Malcolm, the Albanian CP adopted, for a short time, a position in support of Kosova self-determination. This was a tactical ploy, in order to counter the propaganda threat from the Second League of Prizren, set up by former collaborationist leaders after the Italian collapse of 1943. This was with the grudging approval of the Yugoslav CP, and even then, Malcolm records that Djilas was unhappy about it. Thus, Kosova was re-annexed in 1945, prompting armed resistance, and the mutiny of some Albanians who had joined the Partisans. Malcolm cites a recent (1996) source, quoting Kardelj as telling a Central Committee meeting in 1945, with disarming frankness: "The best solution would be if Kosovo were united with Albania, but because neither foreign nor domestic factors favour this, it must remain a compact province within the framework of Serbia." And so it did, the situation being set in stone by Stalin’s veto of Tito’s project for a Balkan federation of Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria, and Tito’s falling out with Stalin and Hoxha in 1948.

That part of the book on Kosova in and after Tito’s Yugoslavia is the least satisfactory. Malcolm makes no secret of his hostility to Marxism, and he is critical of Tito from the right. His understanding of the subtleties of Tito’s brand of Stalinism appears superficial, and some of his assessments are banal. Nevertheless, some points hit home. He admits that after 1968, the position of the Kosova Albanians improved immeasurably, and in fact was better than it had ever been, with a large degree of Albanianisation of the public sector, including the police, the promotion of the Albanian language and elevation of the region to the status of an autonomous province of Serbia (and, de facto equal status with the other republics). He also points out that until the fall of the Interior Minister Rankovic, a Serb, in 1966, repression was almost as bad as it had been pre-war, citing the 1956 show trials of alleged "Albanian infiltrators" who received long prison sentences. Thus the nostalgia of many Kosovars for Tito’s time is understandable, but selective. Malcolm regards Tito’s later, more benign policy towards Kosova as a blend of concession, repression and manoeuvre, which puts him in a partial, and unintentional convergence with the views of some revolutionary Marxists. There is little on Yugoslavia’s complex economic problems, and the role of economic decentralisation after the mid-1960s in stretching the gap between the rich northern republics and the poor south, and in particular Kosova. There appears to be little, from Malcolm’s account, to link the economic problems and the failure of decentralised planning with the growth of nationalism in Yugoslavia as a whole.

Malcolm’s account of the turbulent years since the death of Tito, and the use of Kosova as an anvil in the making of Greater Serbia is thorough enough, but lacks any socialist or working class perspective. This is hardly surprising, given Malcolm’s intellectual and political standpoint, and it becomes more marked in the latter stages of the book. Despite his attack on the pretensions and brutality of nation-building, his own narrative is solely one of nations and nationalities. Therefore, his account of events since 1981 should be read in conjunction with, for example, "Kosovo Between Yugoslavia and Albania" by Branka Magas, in New Left Review in 1983, and reprinted in The Destruction of Yugoslavia (1992), or her Reply to the editors of the Belgrade-based journal Praxis International which appeared in Labour Focus on Eastern Europe (July-October 1987). The same issue includes a piece by the Yugoslav economist Branko Horvat, "The Kosovo Question’, which stresses the need to "reaffirm Yugoslavia as a socialist federation of Balkan peoples, as against any attempt to give it a purely Slav nature". He also records the slogans in the 1981 demonstrations, as, among others: "No dialogue with the red bourgeoisie! Long Live the Working Class!" A vivid account by Shkelzen Maliqi, "The Albanian Intifada", appears in LFEE, 1989, No.2. It concentrates on the 1989 protest occupation of the Trepça mine by its workers (even Malcolm acknowledges the significant role of the miners at this time). LFEE, 1990, No.1, carries an interview with Veton Serroi, a member of the Social-Democratic Party of Kosova giving an insight into conditions in Kosova from a generally left-wing, pro-working class standpoint.

It is possible to take issue with a whole number of things in these texts, principally misplaced nostalgia for the late-Tito era, and a belief that Yugoslavia was, for all its faults, socialist. Nevertheless, they are an essential counterweight to Malcolm’s approach.

However, Malcolm combats Serbian nationalist propaganda on the demographic question which alleges violence and intimidation against Serbs and Montenegrins, and a concerted attempt to breed the Serbs out of Kosova. He attributes the growing Albanian majority to a number of factors: migration from the rural areas to the cities, which in Serbia meant that Serbs left Kosova to get work in Belgrade, and the fact that more Albanians are peasants, the higher birthrate being a function of the lack of social emancipation among rural women. Malcolm concedes that there may have been some intimidation from Albanians, but quotes an official survey which states that of all Serb emigrants from Kosova between 1983 and 1987, 95% left for economic or "family" reasons. He also points out that the most politicised Albanians live in the towns, where the birthrate would be expected to be smaller.

Malcolm’s book is worth reading for its wealth of historical detail. His fire is principally aimed at Serb nationalism, and its self-justifying myths. If, as was the case with Bosnia, any Marxist chooses to swallow these myths and ends up getting caught in the crossfire, that is their problem. Socialists who see the solution to the Kosova conflict in self-determination for Kosova within a Balkan socialist federation will have to look elsewhere for the necessary perspectives, theoretical arguments and practical demands. However, to be effective advocates for this aim, we have to understand Kosova’s history. To that extent, the author has done us some service.