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Bosnia and the Rights of Nations to Self-Determination

Al Richardson

This article was originally written in 1996 for a projected Marxist discussion journal named Results and Prospects. The journal was in fact never published, although a bulletin containing articles which had been submitted received a limited circulation. We publish the article in the hope that it will open a debate in What Next?, both on the specific political questions raised by the break-up of Yugoslavia, and more generally in relation to the National Question, a complex and many-faceted issue which has re-emerged with particular sharpness in the present period.

THE FIRST point we have to establish when approaching this question from the direction of Marxism is what attitude we must adopt towards "rights" in general. To begin with, it has to be said that Marxists do not believe in immutable "rights", fixed for all eternity. This goes not only for the bourgeoisie, but even for the working class. When trade union banners were inscribed with A Fair Day’s Work for a Fair Day’s Pay, Marx argued instead for the slogan of the Abolition of the Wages System.

The ultimate goal of Marxism is the destruction of all states and all classes, and this involves "rights" as well. As Marx pointed out, "right can never arise above the economic structure of a society and its contingent cultural development".1 Moreover, the dialectic teaches us that slogans that were progressive at one period become reactionary with the passing of time and the changing of circumstances. Nobody would argue with the climate of opinion in Northern Ireland as it is today that freedom of worship for all apart from Catholics is a progressive demand, but that is what it was during the English Civil War.

A second consideration is that the national state is the particular expression of the economic and political interests of the bourgeoisie, not of the proletariat.2 It is the necessary political means whereby it takes control of its own market in order to be able to accumulate, to lay the basis for its future competition with the great economic giants on the international level.

Socialists have in the past supported the bourgeois revolution, as Marx explained in his Address to the Communist League, to break up feudalism in order to lead to the development of capitalism, and hence of the proletariat, and to make the revolution "permanent" up to the victory of the latter.3 They also supported it to weaken imperialism in the face of its working class at home.4 Trotsky further developed the theory of Permanent Revolution as a strategy to be taken up in the colonial world to put the proletariat at the head of the toiling masses, displacing a national bourgeoisie that was incapable either of assuring its nation’s independence or of accomplishing its own historic tasks. His theory assumed that only the coming to power of the working class could assure the national independence of the peoples of such countries.5 Support for the rights of nations to self- determination in this instance is thus of a similar character to that of placing demands upon the labour leaders in the imperialist states, not because we believe that they are capable of leading the struggle for Socialism, but to discredit them before their rank and file. But in all these cases the "right of nations to self-determination" was a means for the proletariat, not an end, a mere stepping-stone on the road to world revolution.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by how Marx and Engels approached the national question in Eastern Europe. During the revolutionary ferment of 1846-48 they supported the rights of the "historic peoples" (Germans, Poles and Hungarians) when they cut across those of the oppressed peasant peoples of the area. This was quite simply because it was necessary to smash Prussia, Austria and Russia as gendarmes of reaction on an all-European basis, and because states which would have been founded by the "historic" nations would have been large enough to develop internal markets and a modern industry, leading to the expansion of the proletariat. In this sense their opposition to the claims of the Croats, Ruthenes, etc, was perfectly valid, since national consciousness had barely yet arisen among them, and questions of a national state or of industrialisation were not yet posed. For this reason Rosdolsky’s argument against Marx and Engels’ views at the time is ill-conceived and ahistorical.6

But by the end of the century the development of national consciousness among the minority peoples of the Austrian and the Russian empires made the demand for self-determination a necessary component of a revolutionary programme there.

Moreover, Marx and Engels often showed that their attitude to the right of nations to self-determination depended upon how they saw the strategic needs of the working class on an international basis, even to the extent of changing sides in the middle of a major European war. This is what actually happened during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), where to begin with they supported German unification, but then shifted their support to France, which they regarded as fighting a legitimate war of national defence after the battle of Sedan, because of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. And with the rise of the Paris Commune they even stigmatised the French bourgeoisie as being defeatist counter-revolutionaries.7

The same goes for Lenin’s application of this principle. His polemic against Rosa Luxemburg’s denial of the "right of nations to self-determination" is often cited as if he held it to be an eternal right, existing outside time and space. Yet what they seem to have missed is the common ground that existed between Lenin and Luxemburg, which was as to what policy in regard to this question would be in the best interests of the working class. When it was a question of smashing the Tsarist state or that of the Provisional Government, Lenin was in favour of the rights of nations to self- determination, for without an alliance with the peasantry and the oppressed nations (which were themselves largely peasant) the working class could never have come to power. Yet this same Lenin certainly did not subordinate the interests of the working class to this "right" when he supported the invasion of Poland in 1920, and at the same time contemplated the invasion of Hungary.8 The same government that recognised the independence of Georgia in 1920 reconquered it in 1921, when it was clear that it was being used as a base for foreign intervention against the USSR.

Even in his polemic with Luxemburg over this issue Lenin pointed out: "The demand for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply to the question of secession in the case of every nation may seem a very ‘practical’ one. In reality it is absurd; it is metaphysical in theory, while in practice it leads to subordinating the proletariat to the bourgeoisie’s policy. The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. Theoretically, you cannot say in advance whether the bourgeois democratic revolution will end in a given nation seceding from another nation, or in its equality with the latter; in either case, the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class."9

And whilst arguing that respect for national rights was a vital necessity for maintaining the alliance of the workers and peasants in the USSR, Trotsky similarly denied that national self-determination was "some supra-historical principle (on the model of Kant’s categorical imperative)".10

Put bluntly, it might have been a progressive policy to support Serbia against Austria in 1907, but supporting the principle of Serbian self-determination above all others after August 1914 would have meant subordinating the interests of the working class to the Entente Alliance during the First World War. Classical Marxism discusses everything from the point of view of the international interests of the working class, to which all other "principles" and ‘rights’ are subordinate, including nationalism.11 What happens when the national principle is raised above basic class criteria is easily illustrated by the theoretical confusion that attended the collapse of the USSR. The separation of the larger national minorities to form bourgeois nation states proved in practice to be a necessary mechanism of the counter-revolution, Yet the majority of the Trotskyist movement, whilst holding on paper that what was being destroyed was a workers’ state, actually supported this process. The most risible example of taking such a logic to its ultimate conclusion must surely be Workers Power’s call for the Thatcher government to support the separation of Lithuania. It is a classic illustration of what happens when you elevate the principles of bourgeois democracy above those of the defence of the working class.

As a matter of fact, Trotsky and Lenin made a point of never supporting the national conflicts of the Balkan peoples against each other, not even against the Turks, whose empire had but recently governed much of the area.12 And with good reason: so many peoples in the region have interpenetrated each other since the fall of the Roman Empire in both class and national terms that it is impossible to draw national boundaries between them in any equitable way. Some peoples are so small that the question of a viable national state being erected for them does not arise at all; others overlap in a complicated mosaic of class and nation. What division could have been made, for example, in pre-war Transylvania, whose peasants were Vlach (Romanians), whose landowners were Magyar (Hungarians), and whose bourgeoisie and proletariat were German? Anyone who consults such a classic as Walter Kolarz’s Myths and Realities in Eastern Europe (London, 1946) can see that all these peoples overlap in geographical area, and that they are all able to make territorial demands of varying validity upon each other. Economic rationality reinforces the point: the Balkans and the hook of the Carpathians give the region a unity, the Danube acts as an artery, and the rail system centres upon Vienna and Istanbul. It is not at all surprising that both the Second and the Third Internationals came out in favour of a Federation of the Balkan peoples. Nor is it a coincidence that Stalin, from the standpoint of Great Russian nationalism, opposed this same policy after the Second World War. A viable as well as a just solution of the national problems of this area simply cannot be attained along the lines of bourgeois nation states.

History has demonstrated this in a negative way, so to speak. The only states that have been able assure any stability over the whole region have been those that have denied the national principle, either as pre-capitalist empires (Byzantium, Turkey and Austria-Hungary) or as a post-capitalist federal republic of nations (Tito’s Yugoslavia). Without the tragic collapse of the latter, this whole bloody conflict would not have come about at all.

Naturally, once it becomes a question of the emergence of separate bourgeois nation states, each seeks to cast its borders as wide as possible, and ‘ethnic cleansing’ becomes a means to this end for all of them. This may add to the bitterness of the conflict, but its sheer scale and duration are not due to this alone. Apart from Slovenia, which significantly enough has taken no part in the fighting since the very beginning, none of the combatants has a viable economy at all. The war is being fought out not only by irregulars wielding Kalashnikovs behind boulders, but with tanks, artillery, ground-to-air missiles, and all the conventional modern military paraphernalia. None of this material is cheap, and it has been supplied, serviced and in constant use for some years now. Admittedly, there must be quite a quantity of cut-price Czech, East German and Russian fire power around in Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but it all has to be delivered, serviced, and paid for. When was the last time you saw a bottle of Lutomer Riesling on your supermarket shelf? Who is paying for it all? Obviously, behind Serbia we might look to Russia and Greece, it would be surprising if Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia were neglecting Bosnia, and Croatia probably has German and Italian backers. The fact that all these weapons can so easily cross national frontiers suggests that it is not merely an affair of individual, monopolistic interests and arms suppliers. It may even be, as I suspect, that the states at war are not actually being bankrolled at all, just being allowed unlimited expense accounts on the assumption that if they are successful in their scramble for territory, they will pay their debts to their backers.

Be that as it may, what is important to realise here is that great-power conflicts and interests are obviously being fought out in the course of this never-ending conflict, never-ending simply because it is not in the interests of important wire-pullers elsewhere that it should be otherwise. Long before the First World War this phenomenon coined a new word to enter the vocabulary of diplomacy: "Balkanisation". It is a sad reflection of the theoretical state of the Trotskyist movement that we look in vain for any use of it now.

I therefore believe that the sympathy of much the left for Bosnia, based as it is largely upon atrocity stories in the bourgeois press, is misconceived. The Serbian government has been condemned as Fascist, and yet the only capital in which there has been a mass demonstration against the war has been Belgrade. Some of the hate propaganda directed against the Serbs, obviously aimed at bourgeois feminist prejudices, that they have indulged in rape as part of a deliberate plan to spread their nation, has been proved to be untrue. Of course, all the combatants can be shown to have indulged in massacre, rape, ethnic cleansing, etc, etc. No one has a monopoly of virtue. Those who have done most of it have done it because they had the power to do so. Do we really expect bourgeois nation states at war, ruled by classes largely constructed from the local strata of the old Titoist bureaucracy, to behave any differently?

The hostility for Serbia shared by outside interests in Europe and America can no doubt be ascribed to the fact that should it attain the borders to which it aspires, alone of all the successor states it could rank as something rather more than a minor Balkan republic on the European scale, an option that is not open to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, etc. For Socialists, there is also the attraction that somehow Bosnia might be an "international" state (how many non-federal multi-national bourgeois states actually exist?), or the hope that it might somehow avoid the fate of becoming a European outpost of Muslim fundamentalism, once its outside paymasters demand something in return for their money.

I believe we should again raise the good old slogan of revolutionary defeatism on all sides, along with the demand for an all-Balkan Socialist Federation, The only possible exception might be in the case of the Serbs, faced as they are with the might of NATO and the United Nations, although even here we should make it conditional, for this weaponry could all be pointed in a different direction if a diplomatic realignment came about, and it became necessary to cut Croatia down to size instead.

In my opinion, those Socialists whose aid to Bosnia depends upon the imperialist forces of the UN or of NATO forcing a way through for them are in an unenviable position. Those who spend so much energy arguing as to which is the more "revolutionary" route for this aid – northern or the southern – are in a ridiculous position as well.


1. K. Marx, "Critique of the Gotha Programme", May 1875, The First International and After, Harmondsworth, 1974. p.347.

2. I have argued elsewhere that each revolution creates higher forms of the state than the previous ones. So far, the highest expression of the organisation of bourgeois power is the nation state. The working class in power creates a multi-national state, as the example of the USSR shows (cf. In Defence of the Russian Revolution, London, 1994, pp.xi and xvi). It is not, of course, at all ruled out for the future that sensing the inadequacy of the nation state for their further development, the great monopolies might create continent-wide multinational states out of the EEC, the North American bloc, and the Pacific basin group, on the pattern of Orwell’s 1984.

3. K. Marx, "Address of the Central Authority to the Communist League", April 1850, in Max Eastman (ed), Capital and Other Writings by Karl Marx, New York. 1932, pp.366-7.

4. K. Marx, Letter to L. Kugelmann, 29 November 1869; Letter to S. Meyer and A. Vogt, 9 April 1870, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Britain, Moscow, 1953, pp.502-3, 504-8.

5. L.D. Trotsky, "Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto", 30 October 1937, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, New York, 1976, pp.24-5; "India Faced With Imperialist War", 25 July 1939, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, New York 1973, p.29.

6. R. Rosdolsky, "Engels and the ’Non-historic’ Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848", Critique, Nos.18-19, Glasgow, 1986.

7. K. Marx, Letter to Engels, 20  July 1870, F. Engels, Letter to Marx, 15 August 1870, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Correspondence 1846-1895, London, 1934, pp.292, 295-6; K. Marx, "The Civil War in France", 13 June 1871, in Hal Draper (ed), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Writings on the Paris Commune, New York, 1971, pp.104-5, etc.

8. V.I. Lenin, "The International Significance of the War with Poland", 22 September 1920, In Defence of the Russian Revolution, pp.134-58.

9. V.I. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination", April-June 1914, Collected Works, Vol.20, Moscow 1964, p.410.

10. L.D. Trotsky, "On the National Question", 1 May 1923, In Defence of the Russian Revolution, p.179.

11. To take a modern example, it is questionable as to whether national self-determination would do the Kurdish proletariat any good at all, living as much of it does many miles from Kurdistan. It may even lay it open to a racist backlash, discrimination and pogroms, and its fate is dearer to us than that of any tribal conglomeration. Even if a separate Kurdistan were to be formed, it could become a death trap, for it would lack a coastline and be surrounded by states with both the will and the power to strangle it economically.

12. L.D. Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, New York, 1980, pp.4-5, 30, 40-1, etc.