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

Against Neutralism: A Response to Al Richardson on Bosnia

Y.S. (Joe) Rassool

I CONFESS I WAS deeply disturbed when I read Al Richardson’s article "Bosnia and the Rights of Nations to Self-Determination" in What Next? No.3. I first became acquainted with Al in 1994 when I became a subscriber to the Marxist discussion journal New Interventions. At that time I assumed everyone involved in the editorial project was in tune with the ideals of Ken Tarbuck, the then editor, whom I regarded as one of the clearest, most comprehensive and compassionate thinkers espousing the ideals of socialism. Ken fervently believed in "discussion unfettered by any orthodoxy or party line", as the statement of aims in New Interventions puts it, and I assumed that there was a philosophical kinship between Al’s and Ken’s outlooks. To my intense disappointment, the views expressed by Al in his article reveal a profound dissonance.

I believe that Al’s views need to be contested in comradely debate. I hope this will lead to further clarification of crucial contemporary issues involving nationalism, ethnicity, self-determination, and a concept of the kind of socialism we can believe in. I am delighted that Al has urged a debate on these issues, especially as it seems that the stomach for debate collapsed with the Berlin Wall.

Al opens his argument by asking what attitude a Marxist should take towards "rights" in general. Marxists, he says, "do not believe in immutable rights to eternity", and he cites Marx’s contestation of a trade union call for "A Fair Day’s Pay" to be replaced by "Abolition of the Wages System". No one, I believe, can object to that. But he continues his argument: "right can never arise above the economic structure of a society and its cultural development". Does he mean that the right to combat genocide is meaningless under the capitalist stage of development? Yet one cannot disagree with his next assertion that slogans that were progressive at one period might become reactionary with the passing of time and changing circumstances.

The next stage of Al’s argument is regarding the nation state. This he points out is the political expression of the bourgeoisie, not the proletariat – one of the first lessons we on the left learnt. He also points out that "only the coming to power of the working class could assure the national independence of the peoples of such countries". We have to admit that this route to national independence has thus far not been realised. Where some form of quasi-socialism has since sprung up in third world countries, it frequently resulted in brutal dictatorships of the Pol Pot variety. The abominations in countries of the Stalinist eastern bloc such as Bulgaria have been apparent for some time now. There, ethnic cleansing was also practised when 180,000 Turks were forced to emigrate en masse to Turkey during the period 1949-51. In addition the Pomaks (the Slavic Bulgarians who had converted to Islam during the period of Ottoman rule) were now being induced "to change their names, renounce their faith and become integrated into the socialist Bulgarian state".1 This practice was resumed during the 1980s.

Al next makes the salient point that the "rights of nations to self-determination" was a means for the proletariat not an end – "a mere stepping stone towards world revolution". From this standpoint he goes on to examine the approach of Marx and Engels towards the national question in Eastern Europe. And it is here that I take issue with his line of argument in relation to national struggles and to the whole theory of the so-called "historic" and "non-historic" peoples. Since this is a major point of difference, relating to a contested issue in Marxism, it is only fair to state Al’s argument in some detail.

He writes: "During the revolutionary ferment of 1846-1848 they [Marx and Engels] 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 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." He then continues: "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" (my emphasis).

Whilst thankful to Al for picking up on a comparatively unknown work by the Ukrainian Marxist, Roman Rosdolsky, on "Engels and the ’Non-Historic’ Peoples", we are unable to share Al’s view that the analysis made by Rosdolsky is "ahistorical". If anything, the opposite is true. Rosdolsky bends over backwards to explain Engels’ position in its historical context.2

Rosdolsky documents and analyses Engels’ writings on the attempts at freedom by the so-called non-historic peoples of Austria. Walter Kolarz, whom Al also refers to, attempts to do the same. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of their analysis, they document a rather dark episode of Marxist history. To put it bluntly, Engels’ attitude to the "non-historicals" was blatantly racist as is manifested in the following extracts from an article of February 1849, when the revolutions of 1848 were being crushed:

"The so-called democratic pan-Slavists were in a terrible dilemma. Either the giving up of the revolution and at least the rescue of the nationality by the monarchy, or the giving up of the nationality and the rescue of the revolution by the disintegration of the monarchy. The fate of the East European revolution depended on the position of the Czechs and the Southern Slavs; we will not forget that they betrayed the revolution in Petersburg and Olmutz at the decisive moment for the sake of their petty national hopes.... For this despicable betrayal of the revolution we will some day take bloody revenge on the Slavs."3

In a second article, "The Magyar Struggle", Engels wrote: "However, on the first successful rebellion of the French proletariat, the Austrian Germans and Magyars will be free and take bloody revenge on the Slavic barbarians. The general war, which will then break out, will scatter this Slavic special alliance and annihilate these small stubborn nations.... The next world war will not make reactionary classes and dynasties, but also completely reactionary peoples disappear from the face of the earth [our emphasis]. And that is progress."4 Interestingly, this is not only the young Engels talking. Late in his life his views were no better: "You could now ask me whether I do not have any sympathy for the small Slavic peoples and the debris of peoples (volkertrummer) who were burst apart by the three wedges forced into Slavdom by the Germans, Magyars and Turks? Indeed damn little."

In all these quotes, it is clear that for Engels (and for that matter Marx) the modern nations or, better said, the Western European nations, are seen as models for capitalist development. An historical nation can form a state, a condition for a mature bourgeoisie, a prerequisite for the final contradiction of capitalism. Those nationalities who do not fit into this scheme are deemed history-less or, even worse, reactionary. It is obvious that history has proved Engels horribly wrong. And it is our duty to examine the underlying logic behind such thinking and pose the question: why has Marxism in the form of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin5 been unable to come to terms with the phenomenon of nationalism?

The phenomenon of nationalism is a complex issue. I admit that I had a rather simplistic view of it in the 1950s. We in South Africa were taught that nationalism was the product of the emergence of the middle classes in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. Hence its emergence in 20th century Africa and Asia carried that middle class stigma. We were dogmatic on this in those days. Today I believe the issue of nationalism needs a clearer examination. Manuel Castells, quoting Alexander Panarin from the Russian Social Science Review, May 1996, highlights some of these complexities:

"In this fin de siècle the explosion of nationalisms, some of them deconstructing multinational states, others constructing plurinational entities, is not associated with the formation of classical, sovereign, modern states. Rather nationalism appears to be a major force behind the constitution of quasi states; that is political entities of shared sovereignty, either in stepped-up federalism (as in the Canadian (re)construction in process, or in the ’nation of nationalities’ proclaimed in the Spanish Constitution of 1978, and widely expanded in its practice in the 1990s): or in multilateralism (as in the European Union, or in the renegotiation of the Commonwealth of Independent States of ex-Soviet republics). Centralised nation-states resisting this trend of nationalist movements in search of quasi-statehood as a new historical reality (e.g. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, even India) may well fall victim to this fatal error of assimilating the nation to the state, as a state as strong as Pakistan realised after the secession of Bangladesh."6

In the 1950s and ’60s such ideas would have been rejected with scorn. Today I am less intolerant, and keen to develop an understanding of a phenomenon which needs our careful attention.

The theoretical core of the debate relates to the views of Marx and Engels on the peoples without history – a far more accurate rendition than the term "non-historic peoples". Perhaps Al was under the impression that everyone was au fait with the issue. I’m afraid that until the 1970s only a small number of devoted Marxist scholars would have come across those views of Engels/Marx, and their later history. They certainly never featured in my political education, and more than likely not many socialists, young or old, have heard of those texts – let alone read them. I first came across the Ukrainian Marxist Roman Rosdolsky in the journal Critique, and these are extracts I took from it to augment the quotes above. Hopefully readers can be given the context of the argument Al dismisses so casually.

Rosdolsky quotes Engels writing in "The Magyar Struggle", Neue Rheinische Zeitung 13 January 1849, to the effect that in Austria "the Germans and Magyars have assumed the historical initiative in the year 1848 as in the previous thousand years. They represent the revolution. The Slavs had trailed behind the Germans and the Magyars for a thousand years, only rose up to establish their national independence in 1848 in order to suppress the German/Magyar revolution at the same time. They represent the counter-revolution."

"There is no country in Europe", argued Engels, "that does not possess in some remote corner, one or more ruins of peoples, left over from an earlier population, forced back and subjugated by the nation which later became the repository of historical development. These remnants of a nation, mercilessly crushed, as Hegel said, by the course of history, this national refuse, is always the fanatical representative of the counter-revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or denationalised, as its whole existence is in itself a protest against a great historical revolution.... In Austria the Pan-Slav South Slavs are nothing more than the national refuse of a thousand years of immensely confused development.... We repeat: apart from the Poles, the Russians and at most the Slavs of Turkey, no Slav people has a future, for the simple reason that the other Slavs lack the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for a viable independence."7

Those are the views of Engels, which Al supports so fervently. I find those views repugnant. They stand in total contradiction to what, I believe, socialism means. The fact that they were expressed by Engels and supported by Marx does not, in my view, sanctify them. They echo Marx’s declaration about Britain being the unconscious tool of history in the destruction of the village system in India resulting in the deaths of scores of millions of cotton weavers.

It is true that nine months before his death, Engels told Sorge in November 1894 that he was learning Bulgarian and Rumanian. In a new Polish Edition of the Communist Manifesto, written in 1892, he wrote: "A sincere international collaboration of the European nations is possible only if each of these nations is fully autonomous in its own house."8 However, we are justified in asking whether the xenophobic and great-power views of Engels of 1849 and afterwards did not play a part in the capitulation of the main body of German socialism to imperialistic militarism in 1914. We need also ask whether the absence of critical debate over Engels’s weltanschauung of 1848 within the German socialist movement in the twentieth century did not carry within it some of the seeds of the Holocaust!

An underlying problem with Marxism’s attitude to the national question, and Al’s in particular, is the tenet that progress is measured by what develops the productive forces. How far one can fall with this attitude can be seen from the quotes above. However, the problem is more complicated than its attribution to an attitude towards progress. It is also a question of epiphenomenalism, i.e. that the superstructure is a mere reflection of the economic base, or of class reductionism, i.e. that ideologies and superstructure are determined solely by the class position. Whichever of the two views we take, or a mixture of the two, it has been very difficult for Marxism to come to terms with what nations are, and, despite the tremendous development of the forces of production, the national question remains more acute than ever before. In my view, neither method can explain the phenomenon of nationalism. Al’s explanation reduces itself to nations "needing to cast their borders as wide as possible". This still begs the question as to what is behind the rise of nationalism in Yugoslavia and how borders are to be extended (or preserved).

We certainly do not claim to have complete answers to the question, but we share with Bauer9 the view that the national question is of a multi-dimensional nature, and this view is also propounded by Manuel Castells, in The Power of Identity. There is no one cause or mechanism with which a nation can be understood. Any analysis of the Bosnian question, therefore, will have to look far more deeply than Al has done at the specific history of the peoples that made up the former Yugoslavia. Al has made no attempt to do this and, to be frank, his analysis consists in stringing together various concepts and solutions borrowed from Marxism without setting these concepts in their historical context and, moreover, without questioning their validity, either then or now.

Al also condemns "the majority of the Trotskyist movement, [who] whilst holding on paper that what was being destroyed was a workers’ state, actually supported this process". This also needs to be examined. In the first place, whatever makes Al believe that by the 1980s the USSR was a workers’ state? Evidence points to the fact that at least by 1923 it was no longer a state for the benefit of the working masses.10 The evidence is far too overwhelming for Al to insist that socialists should have opposed the disintegration of the USSR, which long ago became a travesty of socialism. On the basis of the denial of human rights, the forced removal of millions, the enforced Russification of the Turcic peoples, the Balts, the Ukrainians, etc, etc, and the extermination of more people than was carried out by the Nazis, what kind of socialism could ever develop? I would rather accept the collapse of a rotten socio-economic edifice, than maintain support of it because of the belief that it was a "workers’ state".

I was most intrigued by Al’s citation of Walter Kolarz’s book Myths and Legends in Eastern Europe, in support of his argument, particularly as it was written in 1946, i.e. over fifty years ago. Nevertheless, Kolarz certainly put his finger on the problems that feature so prominently in this debate.

I was impressed by Kolarz’s views on the subject of Engels’ "non-historic peoples". Kolarz’s findings, in my opinion, do not corroborate Al’s views on the subject of the non-historical peoples. His book in fact is an honest attempt to deal with the Slavic peoples’ struggle for freedom. Instead of hearing about "remnants of nations" skulking in some remote corner of the land fit only "to be exterminated’, Kolarz reveals how historically these people "were condemned to be inarticulate, anonymous, silent". He explains that the Slovak and Rumanian nobles merged into the Magyar nobility. The people thus deprived of their own upper classes were now described by Engels as "peoples without a history", for only the upper classes wielded effective political power. Kolarz describes also how the fortunes of war could change people from "historical" to "unhistorical": the Protestant Czechs became totally transformed when a Catholic army defeated them and executed their leaders – historical people one day, they became scum of the earth the next, fit only for the refuse bin of history!

Like Rosdolsky, Kolarz did not regard the words of the founders of Marxism as holy writ, but described these peoples’ desperate struggle for survival. Many did so by adopting the language of the ruling class and finally its nationality also. It was actually the rise of capitalism that served to end their helotry. The need for labour gave rise to an influx of the rural "unhistoricals" into the towns, where they brought their language and customs. Interestingly, this, according to Kolarz, had an effect on the town dwellers who had gone over to the ruling class, causing them to revert to their previous language and nationality. The following excerpt from Myths and Realities must surely debunk Engels’ monstrous argument of the 1849 period. Kolarz states that "the national and at the same time social process of reconquest of nationality by the silent peoples is one of the causes of the struggles of nationalities in East and South East of Europe today".11

I am, therefore, grateful to Walter Kolarz, and of course Al, for this serendipitous discovery of a dark untenable area of Marxist thought. Yet, Kolarz is a person of his time. He accepts the existence of races, he is convinced (as most of us were) that religion had been snuffed out in the Soviet Union and he is sketchy regarding the Muslims in the Balkans (they do not feature in the index), about whom he uses the customary appellation of the time, Turks.

Al has much of interest to say regarding the support for the conflict that raged in the former Yugoslavia, and I like his wry comment regarding the warring states: "they were not being bankrolled at all, just being allowed unlimited expense accounts". Yet he ignores the brutalities and atrocities that occurred and brushes them off as being stoked by the bourgeois press and "feminist prejudices", which I think is a thoroughly reprehensible comment that belittles women’s struggle for equality. With a disdainful throwaway line he comments on the "hate propaganda directed against the Serbs" and states that the claims that Serbs "have indulged in rape as part of a deliberate plan to spread their nation has been proved to be untrue". One could ask then, deliberate or not, did or did not mass rape really take place? Quoting from Ed Vulliamy’s review of The Tenth Circle of Hell, the view that the atrocities "were a trumped up lie" comes not from some crypto-fascist group, but a "German Marxist, Thomas Diechmann" whose idea infiltrated the fringe of the British Left.12 Regardless of the origin of these views, one needs to ask, has British Marxism learnt nothing from social thinking since the 1960s on issues of ethnicity and gender?

However, what really grieves me is Al’s ability to dismiss human suffering – mass murder, rape, torture – on the scale inflicted on human beings in former Yugoslavia, in order to pursue some argument or agenda. I seriously enjoin him to read The Tenth Circle of Hell, and then see if he will be so clinical and dismissive in his attitude. The present war tribunal sitting in the Hague certainly has to date made no exculpation of the Serb atrocities. I accept that "no one has a monopoly of virtue" and, no doubt, sooner or later some Bosnian soldier will also have to face the tribunal charged with acts of barbarism. Yet, for Al to shrug his shoulders and excuse what has happened by saying "those who have done most did so because they had the power to do" makes one wince. Today Vukovar and Srebrenica, yesterday Auschwitz and the Gulag – surely the suffering cannot be ignored with such glacial cynicism as is displayed in Al’s utterance.

Al also argues that the only capital where there was a mass demonstration against the war was Belgrade. That may be true, but it is also true that the anti-war group was a very small minority of the population. I quote from a review in the Times Higher Education Supplement by Brendan Simms of Tim Judah’s The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Simms states: "There can be no doubt that the recent war against Muslim and Croats enjoyed the support of all but a tiny minority of the Serbian population."13

Regarding the opposition coalition, Zajedno, Time magazine had the following to report: "Just three months ago Zajedno or ‘Together’, rode to victory on the shoulders of tens of thousands of street protesters, wresting control of ... Belgrade from ... Slobodan Milosevic ... it looked as if Serbia finally had a political force that could oust Milosevic and bring genuine democracy.... But in no time, the members of ‘Zajedno’ have found a way to fall apart. Amid reciprocal accusations of betrayal and collaboration with Milosevic the coalition has split in half.... Milosevic is making a strong comeback, and it seems might hold sway ‘well into the 21st century’. One of the coalition’s two main leaders, Vuk Draskovic, according to Zoran Djindjic, the second leader, ‘has daily contacts with Milosevic’s head of the secret police’ and ‘drinks and dances all night with likes of Arkan’ – aka notorious warlord Zeljko Raznatovic."14

More up-to-date evidence comes from the Independent of 29 July. Andrew Gumbel reporting from Belgrade declares that "all of a sudden, Mr Milosevic is very much back in the driving seat. He has just had himself elected to the Yugoslav presidency ... for the next four years.... The opposition has sunk back into the oblivion from which it emerged last November. Only the students ... have maintained any kind of democratic resolve, but even they are sliding into despondency.... Instead two of the three coalition leaders, Zoran Djindic of the Democratic Party and Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement, argued about how to divide the power ... and soon stopped talking to each other". Where there is populism, opportunism is not far away. In any case, the only way truly to support a principled Serbian opposition to the atrocities is not to be neutral about what it was protesting about!

The London Review of Books carried a review of a recent book A Conflict of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, from which Al might draw some jejune comfort for part of his views. Huntington, a leading strategist of US cold war theory, declares that the war in Bosnia was "a symbol of the coming age, just as the Spanish Civil War was a symbol of the great age of ideological conflict between Liberalism, Communism and Fascism". He argued that the most important factor leading to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia was "the demographic shifts that occurred in Kosovo, i.e. the drop in the Serbian and the rise in the Albanian proportion of the population. In 1961 the Bosnian population was 43% Serb and 26% Muslim, while in 1991, it had become 31% Serb and 44% Muslim. It was ethnic cleansing by procreation". According to this argument, the Serbs forces responded to the slow motion ethnicide committed against them ... by murdering the babies of their enemies. The reviewer continues: "Ethnic expansion by one group led to ethnic cleansing by the other. ’Why do we kill children?’ one Serb fighter answered: ’Because some day they will grow up and we will have to kill them all’."

Huntington pursues his argument with the claim that "Western sympathy for the Bosnian Muslims was a mistake". It was a "non-civilizational anomaly in the otherwise universal pattern of kin backing kin". Huntington declares without the slightest qualm that the decision to support the Muslims violated the most basic precept of the new world order: which is that "blood and treasure should be expended only for civilizational kin. Pursuing the chimera of a multi-civilizational country, the Clinton administration denied self-determination to the Serbian and Croatian minorities. It curtailed their campaign of ethnic cleansing". And then Huntington makes a most mind-numbing assertion: "the peace process was helped by the ethnic cleansing which occurred."15

Like Al, I was among those who were not in favour of the break-up of the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia up to the time of its dissolution, any more than I would favour the dissolution of the multi-ethnic state from which I hale. But once the process was irretrievable, and once the Serb forces in Bosnia had set out on their genocidal policy, I had no more option to oppose this regime of ethnic cleansing than I had to condemn, for example, the massacre of the Armenians in 1915, or Stalin’s "ethnic cleansing" of the Chechens in the 1940s. As a socialist, Al Richardson needs to consider how his own "neutralist" approach to the project of ethnic cleansing by the Serbian forces ends up sharing so much in common with that of the strategist of US global power politics, Samuel Huntington.

It is a sociological given that nothing stimulates racism, genocide and ethnic cleansing so much as support – conscious or unconscious – for racism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and that a neutral attitude towards this is indefensible. Al’s cynical and quasi-Bismarckian realpolitik has no place in 20th century let alone 21st century socialism. As Marx wrote to Kugelmann about Lassalle’s dealing with Bismarck: "Lassalle went astray because he was a realpolitiker.... I am not a realpolitiker.... It is this sort of reality which places Germany so far behind all civilised countries."16 No way should this approach be allowed to return to the language of socialism, despite Engels’ intemperate and condemnable playing with racist fire in the wake of the 1848 defeats. "Nie wieder!" (never again) as socialists in Germany say about Nazism.

In this sense the rise of nationalism among Jews, and the growth of a Bismarckian realpolitik among Jews towards the Muslim and Christian communities in Palestine – with dreadful consequences to follow into the 21st century – was the direct result of Hitler (i.e. of Christian and post-Christian ethnic cleansing in Europe). Nie wieder!

The history of the 20th century has shown in such graphic ways that racism can never be a relativistic discourse in which we engage only on an academic level. We cannot do so, because the experience of racism is very real to those who are victimised and oppressed because of the colour of their skin, their culture, religion or ethnicity. As a South African who experienced the indignity and violation of human rights under the ethnic cleansing policy of the racist Apartheid regime, I can NEVER be neutral or relative in my condemnation. For me and many others it was real – as real as it was to the Jews and "Gypsies" in the Nazi concentration camps, as real as it was for the Muslims in Bosnia. People died because they were Black, Jews or Muslims ... and because it was politically (and ideologically) expedient in the name of another nationalism. Because of that history, I believe that it is the duty of every person, in particular those who speak for "the oppressed", to speak clearly and unequivocally against any form of oppression that denies human rights – no matter what euphemisms and rationalisations are used to describe and legitimate that oppression.

(I would like to thank Paul Trewhela, Dave Hollis and Naz Rassool for their comments and valued discussion during the writing of this paper.)


1. N. Rassool and L. Honour, "Cultural Pluralism and the Struggle for Democracy in Post-Communist Bulgaria", Education Today, Vol.46, No.2, June 1996.

2. How far Rosdolsky bends backwards is evident from E. Nimni’s book Marxism and Nationalism: Theoretical Origins of a Political Crisis, 1991, pp.38-9.

3. R. Rosdolsky, Zur Nationalen Frage: Friedrich Engels und das Problem der "Geschichtlösen" Volker, 1979, p.77.

4. Ibid (Rosdolsky’s emphasis).

5. We deliberately cite Stalin in the same breath as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolsheviks’ main theoretical work on the national question was written by Stalin. It was also much praised by Lenin.

6. M. Castells, The Power of Identity, 1997, p.32.

7. Quoted from R. Rosdolsky, "Engels and the ‘Non-Historic’ Peoples" in Critique, No.18/19, 1986.

8. Institute of Marxism Leninism of the CPSU Central Committee, Frederick Engels: A Biography, 1974, pp.457-8.

9. See Nimni, Marxism and Nationalism, or L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, 1978, for a rather short introduction to Bauer’s views.

10. In the case of the National Question, a continuity from Lenin to Stalin’s politics can easily be shown. See, for instance, R. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, in which this is documented for the Ukraine. The division between a "healthy" and a "deformed" workers state belongs to the mythologies of Trotskyism.

11. W. Kolarz, Myths and Legends in Eastern Europe, 1946.

12. Observer, 20 April 1997.

13. Times Higher Education Supplement, 13 June 1997.

14. Time, 23 June 1997.

15. London Review of Books, 23 April 1997.

16. Letter to Kugelmann, 23 February 1865.