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

Frederick Engels, Baron Jellachich de Buzim and ... Bosnia?

Ernie Haberkern

This article is a further contribution to the debate opened up by Al Richardson’s article "Bosnia and the Rights of Nations to Self-Determination", published in issue No.3 of What Next?. Joe Rassool’s response "Against Neutralism: A Reply to Al Richardson on Bosnia" appeared in issue No.5. Correspondence from Al Richardson ("The Class Basis of Marxism") and Mike Jones ("Marxism, World War I ..."), published in No.6, was followed up by Dave Hollis’s article, "Marxism and the National Question: A Reply to Al Richardson and Mike Jones" in No.7.

DESPITE THEIR obvious differences, Al Richardson and Y.S. Rassool share a common approach to Marxism. It can best be described as the exegetical method so favored by medieval theologians. The sacred texts are searched for appropriate citations which will buttress the position the writer already holds. Historical background and context? Not important. It’s in The Book.

In Richardson’s case, he wishes to deny to the Moslem and Croatian inhabitants of the Balkan peninsular the right to self-determination. He therefore finds a few phrases of Engels’ which seem to argue against the right of self-determination in some cases, and that is all he needs. What was really going on in 1848 isn’t important.1

Rassool, on the other hand, wishes to support the reactionary politics of the Moslem and Croatian nationalists who demand the right of self-determination for themselves but deny it to the Serbs of Krajina and Bosnia. He therefore dismisses Engels’ attacks on the Tudjmans, Izetbegovices and Buthelezis of his day by selecting a couple of poor formulations – intemperate displays of anger written in the midst of a revolution – as "proof" that Engels was a racist.

Now, the advantage of the method employed by Richardson and Rassool is that it is easy. Once you have found your lawyer’s "cite" you don’t need to go any further. To attempt, however, in a short article, to summarize the national issue in the 1848 revolution, let alone describe it in detail, is obviously impossible.2 But it can be stated that it is simply untrue that Engels, or his editor, Marx, ever opposed a people who fought for national independence.

While the term "right to self-determination" was, as far as I can tell, not used by Marx and Engels, the concept itself was stated very clearly in Engels’ articles on the debates over Polish independence in the Frankfurt Assembly. He explained the material basis of the often used slogan "no nation which oppresses another can itself be free". For Engels this was not a sentimental phrase. The soldiery trained to fire on civilian demonstrators and dismiss popularly elected bodies in an occupied country would, sooner or later, use the same methods at home. In 1848 it turned out to be sooner. The Frankfurt Assembly that turned Prussian troops on the Poles was dismissed itself within a few months by those same troops.

Engels’ fury was directed not at national groups oppressed by the German Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns but at national groups that fought for these German oppressors against oppressed peoples and German democratic revolutionaries. In particular, he was enraged by the behaviour of the Croatian nationalists led by Baron Joseph Jellachich de Buzim, Ban of the Croatians, the Mangosuthu Buthelezi of his day.

Under Jellachich, Croat troops first suppressed the Italian revolutionaries with whom the Croatians had not only no quarrel, but almost no contact. They then turned their fire on the German democrats in Vienna. These German democrats were in rebellion against the German Hapsburg dynasty. They wanted a democratic republic free of princes and emperors and were happy to see the Slavic and other non-German subjects of the Hapsburgs go their own way. Only at the end did the Baron lead his troops against the Hungarian rebels. And, while the Croatians had real grievances against the Hungarian aristocracy and gentry, Jellachich refused any compromise with the Hungarian revolutionaries who, from necessity, moved inexorably against those same aristocrats.

Need I add that, once the Italian, Hungarian and German rebels were defeated, the Hapsburgs reinstated the Hungarian nobility in their old positions of privilege and cashiered their loyal Croatian troops?

This was the nationalist politics against which Engels vented his rage.

So what? What do the events of 1848-9 and Engels’ comments on them have to do with the contemporary Balkans? Well, in fact, there are some analogies. But why try to clarify the complicated and difficult to understand politics of the present Balkan wars by an analogy with the events of 1848-9 which are at least as complicated and – given that 150 years have passed – even more difficult to understand? Why not start by using Lenin’s method? If war is the continuation of politics by other means, why not start by asking what are the politics of which this war is the continuation?

In the Balkans, as throughout the old Stalinist bloc, the harsh new world of the global economy has produced a lifeboat mentality. Especially in countries like the former Yugoslavia (and Rumania) where Western capital had been willing to bankroll Stalinist regimes which were, for nationalist reasons, anti-Russian the shock has been severe. For their part, the western bankers, especially the Germans, have been genuinely shocked at the appallingly low level of productivity of these economies. They didn’t believe their own propaganda! And they had lent these characters billions of dollars! What is now going on is a frenzy of asset-stripping driven not by dark imperialist schemes but by sheer panic. The Croatians and the Czechs may be able to be integrated into a stable, prosperous Europe. Sorry about the Serbs and Slovaks. Is it any wonder that in this climate nationalist hysteria takes the place of class politics – or any rational politics?

Liberal public opinion, as best reflected in the "Human Rights" lobby typified by Amnesty International, has responded by calling for an expansion of NATO (read American) military might. These people are not hypocrites. They are genuinely appalled by the atrocities taking place. Who isn’t? They also sincerely believe in the human rights they are on paper dedicated to fighting for. But, they do not believe the people of the Balkans – or of Africa, or much of Asia and Latin America – are capable of exercising these rights on their own. Or winning them for themselves. These rights must be forced on them by "the International Community" which, in practice, means the advanced industrialized countries led by the United States of America. Through economic boycott and, when necessary, military force, the "natives" will receive the blessings of "civilization". What we are dealing with here is the revival of the liberal politics of Robert McNamara and the liberal sociologists, political scientists and pundits who gave us the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

If people think this is too harsh a judgement, they should go back and read the stuff that was produced at the time by American liberals and their Labour Party supporters. The people were not ready for democracy. They were misled by Stalinist and nationalist demagogues. Once UN troops, or NATO troops, were able to establish "order", once "reliable" local politicians who really understand "the democratic process" were installed at the point of bayonets, then, gradually, "normality" would prevail. But, of course, once installed at the point of bayonets these politicians, whatever their background or personal predilections, could not dispense with the bayonets. Especially since the bayonets only enraged the population and swelled the ranks of the opposition, whether that opposition was led by nationalist or Stalinist demagogues or real representatives of the people.

Does this mean that the left should be "neutral" when faced with the choice between a Holocaust Denier like Franjo Tudjman, a Khomeneiite Alija Izetbegovic, or a Radovan Karadzic? Damn them all to whatever form of perdition their respective religious beliefs deem appropriate say I. For one thing, and here is the real analogy with the Croats and Czechs in 1848-9, these mini-states cannot exist except as economic, political and military clients of a larger power. In today’s world it is clear that England, France and Germany cannot maintain their independence except as part of a united Europe. Even the old, united Yugoslavia really only existed as a NATO client state. One can at least entertain the fantasy of an independent Serbia or Croatia. But an independent Moslem Bosnia? It would be little more that an Indian reservation. Hence, even to keep up the pretense of national existence, the Moslem nationalists must insist on a "unified" Bosnia with a population whose majority prefers unity with Serbia or Croatia. And that is why, from day one, the Moslem nationalists have depended on foreign military occupation to implement their project.

Of course, the left wing hawks on Bosnia will argue that this position means support for Radovan Karadzic, using the same logic that leads Madeleine Albright to denounce opponents of Gulf War II as sympathizers of Saddam Hussein.

And what is the alternative? Well, from 1918 on, under the old Serbian monarchy and then under Tito’s Stalinist dictatorship, a real Yugoslav nationality began to develop. And not only that. Today a real European nationality is beginning to develop. It is a very attractive political ideal especially in the old Stalinist countries. But the monetarist policies of the Maastricht bankers are fueling an opposite tendency – a narrow xenophobia that is undermining national feeling even in countries like Italy.

The choice seems to be clear. Either a socialist Europe – or a Europe moving in that direction – or a continent in which the centrifugal forces unleashed by unrestrained competition can only be contained by a more or less benevolent military dictatorship under the guise of NATO. In the Balkans, military occupation and the devastation created by economic boycott can only further inflame nationalist passions. What is needed is massive economic aid to repair the damage caused, not only by war, but by the insane "free market" policies that have been forced on all the former Stalinist countries. Today, a small amount of economic aid is being used as a bribe aimed at "good" nationalist demagogues – that is, demagogues who co-operate with the occupation forces. There is no serious thought being given to the kind of aid that would lead to an economically vital and unified peninsular.

Given these alternatives, do we want to see a permanent occupation of the Balkans by a NATO (read United States military) army of occupation? Already this force has carried out the largest ethnic cleansing of the recent war. The Serbs of Krajina were driven out of a land they had lived in for hundreds of years by a CIA trained and equipped Croatian force. And that army was backed up by the same US Air Force that perpetrated the notorious `turkey shoot’ at the end of Gulf War I.


1. I can’t resist mentioning that the last time I heard this argument was in the mid-sixties when some comrades in Berkeley attempted to use these same texts to "prove" that "Marxists" didn’t have to support the right to self-determination for the Vietnamese if it meant supporting the military victory of guerilla forces led by known Stalinists. Strange bedfellows for Al Richardson.

2. There is an extended discussion of this issue in chapter 3 of Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol.5 (forthcoming from Monthly Review Press) as well as a long note on Roman Rosdolsky’s mishandling of the evidence.