This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Why Marxists Should Have Defended Bosnia (And Why They Shouldn’t)

Nick Davies

I FOUND little to disagree with in the survey of the Marxist approach to the question of national self-determination which formed the bulk of Al Richardson’s article on Bosnia ("Bosnia and the Rights of Nations to Self-Determination") in What Next? No. 3. What I did disagree with is the extrapolation from that survey that Marxists should not have defended Bosnia-Hercegovina (hereafter BH) during the civil war in Bosnia. This article will argue that the defence of BH, up to the creation of the Bosnian-Croat Federation, was in the best interests of the working class. I will also try to distinguish the very good reasons for Bosnian defencism from those others, mistakenly advanced by sections of the left, or existing purely in the minds of critics. Although this article is a reply to Al Richardson, I will be criticising the positions held by a range of groups and individuals opposed to Bosnian defencism, not just those held by Al.

Marxists should not have supported the Muslims in the civil war, as against the Bosnian Serbs and Croats (although at times it was absolutely necessary to call for the defence of the Muslims against ethnic cleansing, of which they were the principal, although not sole victims). Instead, Marxists should have been for the defence of BH, which comprised Muslims, Serbs and Croats. To understand this position, we need to understand the nature of the war. The war was not simply an inter-ethnic conflict (although as the war went on it increasingly assumed that character). At its start, at least, it was as much a conflict between, on the one hand, those who wanted a multi-ethnic BH, and on the other, those who wanted to build ethnically "pure" states: Republika Srpska and Herceg Bosne. The former camp comprised most of the workers in the industrial centres of Bosnia, socialists, the liberal and leftwing intelligentsia, and a large number of people who fitted into none of the above ategories, but who showed a marked reluctance to slit their neighbours’ throats and torch their houses. In the latter camp we find fascists, right-wing nationalists, the Catholic and Orthodox clergy, war profiteers, and those miseducated by a propaganda campaign almost demented in its pitch and intensity into believing that they were about to be forced into a Muslim fundamentalist state. In such circumstances, is there any doubt whatsoever whom Marxists should have supported?

Marxists should not have supported or defended BH on the basis that it was a nation; of course, it was not. Nor should support have been on the basis of the right of BH to self-determination. Marxists should have defended the state of BH. This is because it was a multi-ethnic state, and, as has been shown, could not have existed in any meaningful way in any other form. Multi-ethnicity in itself does not make a state more progressive (otherwise Marxists would have defended Austria-Hungary!) However, in these circumstances, the defence of BH was surely the most practical, concrete realisation of the defence of the multi-ethnic areas, and of multi-ethnic workers’ unity. Surely, it was only on the basis of the defence of the workers’ unity which existed in cities such as Tuzla, that the all-Balkan Socialist Federation aimed for by Al (and me) could have any hope?

By the same token, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat "self-determination" was impossible to realise without ethnic cleansing and murder. In this context, a call for self-determination was an attack on multi-ethnicity and therefore, objectively, ran counter to any attempts at workers’ unity. This did not prevent the more gullible members of the left idealising the "choice" of the Bosnian Serbs and Croats to separate as acts of free and collective cultural affirmation, rather than plebicites conducted at virtual gunpoint. Others, adopting the same method to arrive at a different conclusion, tried to shoe-horn the Croatian war of 1991-1992 into a struggle for Croatian self-determination at the expense of the substantial Serb minority, and aiding and abetting the demonisation of the Serbs which Al is right to condemn. Strangest of all was the advocacy, by some, of multi-ethnic workers’ defence, simultaneous with their refusal to support such militia as the Bosnian 2nd army which was defending Tuzla, on the basis that it was under the nominal authority of the government in Sarajevo. Such woodenheadedness only serves to make the revolutionary left an unmissable target for satire.

Marxists should have defended BH notwithstanding the politics of its government. The BH government was pro-capitalist. It sought recognition from the West for an independent BH as a means of self-protection; as the state-builders in Serbia and Croatia set to work, it did not require a genius to forsee a bloodbath in Bosnia. No faction of the BH government had the means or the will to fight for a multi-ethnic state as Marxists should have fought for it, by mobilising the working class which had so much to lose by the impending civil war. Such a fight would, of course, have undermined the pro-capitalist government which vacillated, which entertained the most pathetic illusions in West European imperalism, and which, in the main, was all too prepared to compromise in favour of a Muslim statelet. There is already enough ammunition to chuck at Izetbegovic without inventing some more. Nevertheless, there were those on the left who, with a singular gullibility, accepted as good coin Bosnian Serb and Croat propaganda that he and his party were Muslim fundamentalist. No evidence is produced to support this lazy allegation because there is none. How Izetbegovic combines his fundamentalism with an admiration for Anglo-Saxon philosophy and Renaissance art is anyone’s guess! Meanwhile, the reappearance of traditional Muslim practices among the hitherto secularised Bosnian Muslims, and the emergence of strictly Muslim militia, such as the Bosnian 7th army, is attributable to the hideous logic of ethnic cleansing, not to any project of Izetbegovic and his party.

There are some who justify their refusal to defend Bosnia by saying that BH was used as an auxiliary of imperialism in a campaign against Serbia. Variants of this position are that Serbia is still some form of workers’ state and therefore ought to be defended, or that Serbia is a last redoubt against an imperialist project to break up Yugoslavia. I think this is mistaken, although Marxists should have opposed all NATO attacks on Serbia, all UN intervention, (whether or not it was masquerading as humanitarian aid) and all attempts in the media to make Serbia a pariah state. Once it became clear that Yugoslavia’s days were numbered, German imperialism muscled in on Croatia and Slovenia, while both Britain and France, for a numbered of historical reasons, favoured Serbia. The plan was for a minimum number of "reliable" successor states which could be penetrated further by Western finance capital: Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia. Multi-ethnic BH could go to the wall. Hence the arms embargo which prevented the Bosnian army from arming and equipping itself, the aid on a drip-feed, the refusal for months to allow the re-opening of Tuzla airport, the imperialist complicity in the massacre at Srebrenica, and, finally, under US influence, the creation of a rump Bosnian-Croat Federation under the baleful eye of Franjo Tudjman. Whilst they should be condemned unreservedly, the NATO attacks on Bosnian Serb positions amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist, a way of saying "just remember just who’s in control here". One need look no further than the Guardian for accounts of the role of the NatWest Bank, which includes on its board one Douglas Hurd, in the privatisation of the Serbian economy. We should not be deceived by the pro-Bosnian coverage in the bourgeois press. (That same press displays sympathy towards African famine victims. That does not prevent it supporting the economic system which causes famine!)

The left did not acquit itself well on the question of Bosnia. Much of the "anti-Bosnia" left made itself an accomplice, unwitting or otherwise, of Serb or Croat nationalist propaganda and historical revisionism. The question of Muslim collaboration with the independent fascist Croatia in World War II has been raised, for example. In so far as this is relevant, there undoubtably was collaboration, but there is also ample evidence of Muslim opposition to attacks on Serbs and Jews, and of enlistment by Muslims in Tito’s partisans. Our critics overlook the widespread collaboration with the Nazis among Serbs, which caused even Churchill to regard Draza Mihailovic’s Cetniks as a liability. Some of the "pro-Bosnia" left made their point of departure not that of Lenin and Luxemburg – the best interests of the working class in the Balkans – but a liberal charity-mongering, based a view of Bosnians as passive victims. It is indeed a tragedy, and not just for the Bosnians themselves, but for all the workers of the Balkans, that they were the victims. Had the war gone differently, and those Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats who wanted a multi-ethnic state been able to defeat the forces of ethno-fascism, they would have prevented the balkanisation of the Balkans and scored a momentous and much-needed victory for the workers of Eastern Europe.