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Order Reigns in the Balkans

Dave Bedggood

AFTER ELEVEN weeks of aerial bombardment by NATO, Yugoslavia capitulated. The Serbian economy was virtually destroyed and NATO now occupies Kosovo.

What was this war about? We have had a range of "explanations" to account for what motivated the US and EU to use NATO to go to war against Yugoslavia. We can dismiss the moral crusade of Clinton and Blair as utter hypocrisy. No one to the left of Tony Blair believes that the war was really about the democratic rights of the Kosovars. Other peoples (Kurds, Rwandans, Colombians etc) are much worse off but conveniently ignored by the Western crusaders. The bombing made the situation worse for the Albanians, whose rights cannot be advanced by the massive destruction and occupation of Yugoslavia.

The role of Western social democracy reinforced the belief popular with the Serbs, and other oppressed nations, that Western cultural imperialism was to blame. The war was seen as evidence of the West continuing its long-standing racist crusade against the Slavs. For those on the receiving end of the bombs this was the most obvious way to explain NATO’s targeting of Serbia in such a barbaric way.

Emil Vlajlic, a Serb living in the US, argued that the war was caused by the desire on the part of the Occident to impose its rationality upon the irrational Orient. Edward Said wrote scathingly about the hypocrisy of the West attacking Serbia but ignoring the history of the oppression of the Palestinians. He explains such double standards as the result of a Eurocentric racist world-view.

However, racism, though real, is like Blairite moralism about democracy a cultural justification for going to war. It is not sufficient to explain the war. If it were, then the West would be at constant war with the "rest" So maybe realpolitik is to blame?

No. "Hegemonic power" is not a sufficient explanation. For example, Noam Chomsky’s position comes down to the renegade US refusing to abide by international law and democratic institutions. In Chomsky’s view, this power-grab is a means to economic ends, but excessive power is the cause. Giovanni Arrighi accounts for this as the result of US finance capital in decline. The only way that the US can prevent its demise as a world power is to assert its dominant political and military authority. Immanuel Wallerstein says the US power play in using NATO to attack Yugoslavia was an attempt to checkmate the EU and subordinate European capitalism to the US-dominated NATO war machine. The motive is the US trying to block the formation of independent armed forces in Europe that would allow the EU to advance its economic interests. But what he fails to spell out is why the US and EU are engaged in an economic rivalry for "hegemony".

Does this mean that Michel Chossudovsky – who details economic motives behind the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the isolation and destruction of Serbia – is right? No, because Chossudovsky says that the economic motive is the madness of US finance capital which is undermining democratic capitalism. So for Chossudovsky economics are determined by the politics of US hegemony. Again we are limited to the circular Chomsky analysis of power politics in which the US is a rogue nation state. But while power is clearly a necessary precondition of war it is insufficient to explain the objectives of war.

It is necessary to identify the economic interests which underlie US political and military hegemony. Arrighi’s account puts the role of US finance capital into an historical context, but does not explain why the US economy is in decline. He cannot refute the Chomsky/Chossudovsky line that US finance capital can be regulated by democratic institutions. Since in their view the contradiction is between an aberrant, abnormal finance capitalism, and normal, productive capitalism, there is no reason to believe that US hegemonic decline cannot be turned around into a peaceful and democratic outcome.

The Marxist explanation establishes the real cause of war as the need of nations to defend and expand their economic interests. US hegemony results from a long period in which US imperialism was able to dominate its rivals to expand its economy to extract super-profits from production. Imperialist rivalry is not the result of excessive power. Nor is it the result of finance capital running amok. It is an act of desperation on the part of each power to attempt to arrest falling profits by expanding the ability to extract surplus value in production. Thus the main imperialist powers are necessarily forced into trade wars and military wars. This explains why the US is desperate to carve out new colonies and markets at the expense of its imperialist rivals. In the final analysis, the US and the EU were motivated to carve up Yugoslavia to get rid of the remains of the post-capitalist regimes, and to open up the region to imperialist exploitation.

The war in Yugoslavia is one of the last acts of the not-so-cold war to reclaim "communism" for capitalism, so that capitalism can re-colonise the former Eastern bloc and attempt to overcome its internal crisis and long-term decline. To this end, political power and military might were used to stage an imperialist war against the rump of the former Yugoslavia to break it up and divide the Balkans into new client states of imperialism.

To justify this operation, the war to defend "human rights" was concocted as a moral cover. This scenario had already been tested in Iraq where the US/UN has caused over 2 million deaths. Given this analysis, it is clear that what was at stake for workers in this war was the need to unconditionally defend Yugoslavia against NATO imperialism. All other questions had to be subordinated to the defeat of imperialism as the main enemy.

It is clear that the Western left failed the test. The reformist left differed only in preferring a pacifist means of intervention (UNO peacekeeping troops, rule of international law etc). Most of the centrist left, even if they saw the war as wrong, put the rights of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo on an equal footing with the rights of Yugoslavs bombed by NATO. Some demanded that the Serbs get out of Kosovo as a condition of defending Yugoslavia, while others called for the arming of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Workers’ Liberty preferred NATO as the representative of advanced and democratic capitalism against medieval Serbia.

Leninists of course advocate the right of self-determination for all oppressed nations, but in the context of an imperialist military assault this principle is subordinate to the wider conflict. Supporting Kosovar claims for autonomy, independence or unity with Albania did not mean giving automatic endorsement to a Kosovar army financed and supplied by the West, as much of the centrist left did.

These "left" currents failed to expose the ideological cover of imperialism as a benign civilising force, masking its deliberate break-up of Yugoslavia and cultivation of national rivalries and chauvinist dictatorships. They gave credibility to imperialism’s continuing cold war strategy to divide, rule and restore capitalism, in the name of the rule of law and human rights.

As a result, the mass of workers in the main imperialist countries went along with this and didn’t mobilise against the war. Only in Greece, and to a lesser extent in Italy, did we see genuine working class mobilisations and working class defence of Yugoslavia.

This was not the workers’ fault! It was the fault of the left which compromised in its opposition to imperialism. This is why, in the main NATO countries, opposition was limited to relatively small-scale street protests. The mass of workers did not come out, because they were confused about what was at stake. Yet where the left took a strong, uncompromising lead against NATO, as in Greece and Italy, successful mobilisations threatened the NATO military bases and movements of troops and supplies. Once more the building of an anti-imperialist working class movement in the imperialist countries was held back by the misleadership of the reformist and centrist left.

The battle for Kosovo has been won by imperialism with the aid of the left. NATO has tested its new aerial weapons of high-tech total war. It has drawn Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into its alliance. It has a military base in Albania. Germany has resumed its former leading military role in Europe. Russia has been forced into the galling position of retrospectively endorsing NATO bombing. Despite the token gesture by Russian troops of defending Pristina from NATO, they are now firmly integrated in to the US, German and French sectors of Kosovo.

This defeat sets the precedent for NATO to intervene in any civil war on the pretext of defence of human rights and democracy. Worse than that, NATO has now got UN Security Council legitimacy for its dirty wars. Imperialism can plan to use NATO/UN at any time to defeat opposition to its imperialist adventures in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Russia and China are the next likely targets. The CIS is breaking up as the Russian economy collapses. Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova now form GUUAM, a US-aligned bloc of oil rich states seeking NATO protection from Russia. The US and EU are rivals in controlling this region. Already US interests control half of Azerbaijan oil production. Any attempt by Russia or the Islamic states to foment or defend breakaway regions will be met with the NATO/UN double whammy. In any war between NATO and Russia, workers will have to be for unconditional defence of Russia.

China is still (barely) a degenerated workers’ state. As yet, the main areas of China’s economy are still governed by a central plan, and the inroads of capital are controlled by a Stalinist bureaucratic state. But China is clearly a target for Western investment and ultimately ownership and control. The isolation of China, as a result of increasing Western (mainly US) domination of the economies of Japan and the Asian Tigers, will intensify pressure to "open up" to the capitalist market. Internal divisions or civil wars can provide the pretext for NATO/UN interventions. Again, whether China remains a degenerate workers" state or not, it is clearly an oppressed nation in relation to imperialism and should be unconditionally defended.

The underlying cause of NATO’s war against Yugoslavia is thus the drive to break up and restore capitalism in Yugoslavia in preparation for moving into the remains of the CIS, central Asia and China. Whether welcomed as a civilising crusade, or opposed as rampant finance capital bent on world domination, this drive is necessary for the survival of the imperialist powers and of the capitalist system. This means that it cannot be stopped by opposing moral hypocrisy or by regulating finance capital. It can only be stopped by the revolutionary overthrow of the system that generates this drive.

The negative lesson we need to learn from this defeat is that much of the Western left has all but given up on the defence of the international working class, preferring instead to provide moralising cover for their own ruling classes. We can expect this "left" to go along with a succession of national wars where imperialism steps in to restore democracy with a few thousand missiles. What remains of the revolutionary left had better get its act together and prepare to fight in anti-imperialist military blocs with nationalist dictators against the main enemy in a number of impending wars.

The positive lesson is that it is possible to build an anti-imperialist united front across all nations against the main enemy of today, the imperialist powers with the US at their head. This does not mean that the rights of small nations should be trampled on. On the contrary democratic rights, including national self-determination, are a necessary part of a revolutionary programme. But these rights should be fought for only if they are in interests of the international working class. In the upcoming imperialist wars, the anti-imperialist united front will come to be seen as the only true defence of democracy. In this task revolutionaries must take the lead.

From What Next? No.14 1999