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War Conditioning: Demonising Milosevic

Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia, Penguin Books, 2nd edition, 1996. Paperback, 400pp, £6.99.

Reviewed by Bernard H. Moss

NATO COULD not have waged such a destructive and self-defeating war against Serbia without its leader Slobodan Milosevic being demonised. Many politicians, journalists and institutions, including the UN, have contributed to this demonisation. They have been able to draw upon many prejudices and misunderstandings in the West as well as the brutal reality of ethnic civil war in the Balkans. One of the best and most influential accounts that has helped turn opinion against Milosevic was The Death of Yugoslavia, a book and six part television series produced for the BBC in 1995.

It is a truly remarkable production based upon interviews with all the leading players in the bloody eight year drama that started with Milosevic’s conversion to the cause of the Kosovan Serbs in 1987 and ended with the Dayton peace accords that divided Bosnia along ethnic lines. Rarely have national leaders given such candid TV interviews on the eve of a decisive international negotiation.

The book is written by Laura Silber of the Financial Times, probably the most knowledgeable journalist working in the Balkans. Crammed full of information and often perceptive analysis, it shows that even the finest journalist can descend to tabloid demagogy when it comes to sustaining ruling ideas.

The facts presented lead themselves to many interpretations, but the one that is headlined for the public, particularly in the film, is anti-Milosevic. The voice-overs tell us that Milosevic under his wife’s influence took up the nationalist cause, ousted loyal party officials, sought control of the Yugoslav federation in order to construct a Greater Serbia and employed brutal paramilitary squads to achieve ethnic cleansing.

Words are mistranslated to portray Milosevic’s supposed conversion to extreme nationalism. An invitation to dialogue with Albanians is turned into a call to Serbs to come in now. Facing Serbian demonstrators who accused the Albanian police of beating them, Milosevic is shown making a portentous reversal of party policy, vowing that they "will never be beaten again", a mistranslation repeated in nearly every book on the subject. Actually Milosevic, visibly shaken by the incident, merely stammered "they should not beat you". The impression conveyed is that he destroyed Yugoslavia.

Now you don’t have to be a Balkan specialist to realise that the present conflict did not begin with Milosevic in 1987. Ethnic cleansing has been going on for hundreds of years. Tito’s Yugoslavia, held together by Communist ideals, provided some ethnic balance and security; its disintegration left people vulnerable to nationalist demagogues. The problem today is that different ethnic groups live side by side in fear and hatred, refusing any regime that does not allow them to control their neighbours.

Kosovo was on the verge of civil war under the autonomy statute, rescinded by Milosevic, which allowed Albanians to discriminate against Serbs. No Serbian leader responsive to the popular will (and Milosevic was twice elected by large majorities) could have allowed the breakaway of independent states and regions without securing rights for minority Serbs.

There is no evidence in the book that Milosevic pursued a Greater Serbia or sought the extermination of any group. Brought up in the Titoist belief in a Communist Yugoslavia, he was extremely flexible as to means. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was already under way when he came to power. He tried to keep it together, and then, when it split apart, to preserve a modicum of federal law to protect the ethnic minorities. When that did not work, he tried in vain to get the Croats to guarantee the rights of local Serbs, who could be excused for thinking they were facing another Nazi-inspired extermination. In 1995 of course they were either exterminated or expelled by the Croats in the worst atrocity of the war – an event largely ignored by the strongly anti-Serbian Western press.

Another myth is that Milosevic is an all-powerful dictator who makes all the decisions and is therefore responsible for all the atrocities committed by Serbs in Yugoslavia. Silber resorts early on to innuendo, associating Milosevic with the 1986 nationalist Memorandum on Serb rights, which he implicitly condemned, and makes the uncorroborated accusation that once in power he carried out a Stalinist-style purge down to the factory and restaurant level!

Most of the book relativises his power, portraying him as a wily politician attempting to deal with forces – local nationalists, army generals, paramilitaries and international mediators – who were essentially out of his control. It is perfectly clear that he resisted army entreaties to expand Serbian borders. Once the UN had imposed draconian sanctions and NATO threatened air assault, Milosevic pressed for peace in Bosnia against the will of Radovan Karadzic and local nationalists.

The initiative for the ethnic wars came from local Serbs fearful for their safety under Croat, Muslim or Albanian regimes. These local Serbs received help from the federal army and paramilitaries often working in tandem. Some of the most brutal atrocities were committed by paramilitaries under Vojislav Seselj. In his interview he claims his services were requested directly by Milosevic, whose secret services provided arms and transport.

If Milosevic employed paramilitaries whom he knew would commit war crimes, he could be criminally liable, but it would be hard to find an impartial court with appropriate jurisdiction and powers to judge him – certainly not the Hague tribunal, which is a kangaroo court. The tribunal was set up by the UN Security Council at the urging of the US, Britain and France to prosecute war criminals in the former Yugoslavia. It was given unprecedented powers that violate all accepted principles of international law and justice.

In the conspiracy of silence that reigns in the Balkans, defendants are unable to obtain the evidence they need to exculpate themselves. Furthermore, war atrocities must be judged in the context of the mutual fears and ethnic hatred unleashed by the collapse of Yugoslavia. Sadly, forced population displacement and regrouping is the aim of every party in the Balkans; even President Clinton, having read a history, was ready to bow to the inevitable at Dayton. If ethnic cleansing is everyone’s aim, the Serbs can hardly be designated as the sole perpetrators of crime.

The court has targeted Serbian leaders in violation of the principle of sovereign immunity. This principle, which protects legitimate governments, is a guarantee of peace, order and democracy in the world. It does not protect Augusto Pinochet, who was not a legitimate sovereign when he assassinated leftists. The court has thus stirred up war fever against the Serbs and inflamed Serbian opinion against the UN. It is making no moves to indict Croat leaders for their assaults and murders of Serbs or NATO for its bombing of civilian infrastructure, which is a violation of the Geneva Convention. Like The Death of Yugoslavia, the court has contributed to war.

The Transitional Programme Revisited

Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Programme: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, Bolshevik Publications, 1998. Paperback, 218pp, £7.50.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

THIS NEW edition of the Transitional Programme, published by the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), contains Trotsky’s original 1938 text together with a new introduction and other additional material.

The latter, it must be said, is of mixed merit. The editors are intent on proving that the Spartacist tendency, in which their own grouping originated, once held some healthy political positions that are worth reviving. I remain unconvinced. The sectarian dementia of the Sparts no doubt intensified in later years, but on the evidence presented here – in the historical articles on US Trotskyism and in documents of Spartacist work in the trade unions in the 1970s – it is clear they were always an ultra-left variant of the Trotskyist tradition.

More worthwhile is the editors’ convincing demonstration that transitional demands are not a personal invention of Trotsky, as both his admirers and detractors often assume, but derive from the programmatic methods of the early Third International.

The problem here, as I see it, is that both the Comintern and the Fourth International were launched on the basis of the mistaken expectation that revolutionary crises were imminent throughout world capitalism, which renders their programmatic approach of limited relevance to a non-revolutionary situation. However, I won’t bore readers with a reiteration of my appallingly revisionist views on this issue, which are expounded at length in What Next? No.11.

Although having little sympathy with the Spart-influenced "orthodoxy" of the IBT, I would recommend the book to comrades, both orthodox and revisionist. Well produced and reasonably priced, it makes a useful contribution to the debate about transitional demands and programmatic method.

Marxism and the Jazz Revolution

Frank Kofsky, John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s, Pathfinder, 1998. Paperback, 500pp, £15.45.

Reviewed by Robert Wilkins

FRANK KOFSKY’S Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, first published in 1970, was regarded as a classic of Marxist musicology in some quarters. An uncompromising defence both of the musical innovations associated with saxophonist John Coltrane and of the contemporary radical political movement among African-Americans, Kofsky’s study was translated into several languages and remained in print until being superseded by the book reviewed here.

A considerably expanded version of the 1970 original, John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s was completed by Kofsky shortly before his death in 1998. It is a rather odd production. Instead of rewriting and updating the book, which would have allowed him the opportunity to reassess the views expressed in the earlier study, Kofsky chose to retain large sections of the 1970 text unaltered, while making substantial additions to it. The result is a book which reads as if it were a product of the late 1960s, whereas in fact much of it was written almost three decades later.

It is not as though Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music didn’t require a serious reappraisal. Its central flaw was that it sought to relate developments in jazz directly to the rise of African-American political consciousness, while attributing the central role in these musical developments to John Coltrane, a man who had minimal interest in politics and derived his ideological inspiration primarily from an eclectic Eastern-influenced version of religion.

Kofsky concedes that Coltrane was drawn to what he calls "cosmic mysticism", yet he insists that the great musician’s philosophical outlook "did overlap to some degree with black nationalism". However, Kofsky’s 1966 interview with Coltrane, which appeared in the 1970 book and is reprinted here, shows no evidence whatsoever of such an overlap.

Kofsky opened the interview by trying to read political significance into the fact that the saxophonist had been spotted in the audience at one of Malcolm X’s meetings. But this fell a bit flat when Coltrane made it clear that he had only attended the one meeting, and had been motivated by curiosity rather than any ideological sympathies. Pressed by Kofsky about "a relationship between some of Malcolm’s ideas and the music, especially the new music", Coltrane responded with generalisations about music expressing the entirety of human experience. And when Kofsky suggested that "jazz is particularly closely related to the black community and it’s an expression of what’s happening there", Coltrane argued rather that the music was an manifestation of individual creativity.

In this new edition, Kofsky attempts to bolster the picture of Coltrane as a politicised individual by adding the transcript of a 1966 radio interview. But it does little to strengthen Kofsky’s case. Asked about the war in Vietnam – an example of US imperialist aggression which would have been denounced as such by anyone influenced by black radicalism – Coltrane replies: "The Vietnamese war? Well, I dislike war – period. So therefore, as far as I’m concerned, it should stop, it should have already been stopped. And any other war. Now as far as the issues behind it, I don’t understand them well enough to tell you how this should be brought about; I only know that it should stop."

Indeed, so far as Coltrane had any political sympathies at all, these were not with the militant nationalism of Malcolm X but with the Christian pacifism of Martin Luther King. It was to the latter that he dedicated the composition "Reverend King", one of the only two pieces he ever wrote containing any kind of political reference (the other was "Alabama", composed in the aftermath of a Ku Klux Klan bombing of a black church in Birmingham).

Kofsky had read Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, from which he quotes at length at one point, but his analysis falls into the reductionism which Trotsky’s more sophisticated approach aimed to avoid. Rather than using the theoretical insights of Marxism to uncover the actual interconnections between music and wider society, Kofsky plays into the hands of those who wish to depict Marxists as dogmatists intent on imposing their particular conceptual framework onto reality. Thus Eric Nisenson, in his 1993 biography Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest, compares Kofsky to a character in a Nabokov novel who interprets a poem "completely in his own terms and concerns, totally missing the poet’s very personal true intentions. Not once does Kofsky address the spiritual aspects of Coltrane’s music, a subject that Coltrane discussed repeatedly and that is patent to anyone even vaguely aware of Trane’s artistic philosophy. The reason why the Marxist Kofsky ignored this particular subject is no mystery".

Another distinctive feature of Kofsky’s method as a jazz critic is that his analysis is largely devoid of actual criticism. His obligation as a Marxist, he seems to have believed, was to mount an unconditional defence of the New Music and to bitterly condemn any fellow critic who reacted to the jazz revolution with anything less than complete enthusiasm.

Mind you, he wasn’t altogether wrong here. Certainly, the reader can empathise with Kofsky’s denunciation of the ignorance and subjectivism demonstrated by writers in the then influential music magazine down beat, who unthinkingly rejected as "anti-jazz" the early-’60s advances by musicians like Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, the multi-instrumentalist who was at that time a member of Coltrane’s group.

Why did the critics respond so harshly to these efforts to extend the boundaries of jazz? No doubt they had a variety of motives. Kofsky quotes trumpeter Bill Dixon to the effect that the critics were confronted by something they didn’t understand and felt that their careers were threatened. Kofsky himself, however, preferred to regard opposition to the New Music as the result of racism – an argument which, while probably true in the case of some down beat contributors, implicitly rules out any negative criticism of the music by non-blacks.

In any case, not all the opponents of the avant-garde were white jazz critics by any means. Coltrane’s former employer Miles Davis, for example, dismissed a recording by pianist Cecil Taylor as "sad shit", reacted to a performance by Ornette Coleman with the remark that the alto saxophonist was clearly suffering from psychological problems, and as Nisenson points out "expressed disdain for much of Coltrane’s later work". Composer/bassist Charles Mingus, who gave the young iconoclasts a boost in the early ’60s by including Eric Dolphy in his group, eventually turned against the New Music because of its insistence on a complete rupture with the established jazz tradition. Mingus took to hiring conventional bebop-influenced musicians and recording Duke Ellington compositions and other standards in protest against what he saw as the excesses of the New Wave.

As Lewis Porter recounts in his 1998 study John Coltrane: His Life and Music, even members of Coltrane’s own group were antagonised by the extreme free-form character of his later music. Pianist McCoy Tyner, who had been with Coltrane for over five years, left the group at the end of 1965, to be followed by longtime drummer Elvin Jones, after both become frustrated at the group’s musical direction. They gave almost identical reasons for quitting – that the music had become "a lot of noise" and that they couldn’t hear what anyone else in the group was playing.

The sheer ferocity of improvisations by Coltrane and his new front-line partner, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, together with the absence of a regular rhythmic pulse after Rashied Ali took over the drum stool from Elvin Jones, did not make for easy listening. Audiences, black as well as white, often reacted badly to the music and there are reports of walkouts at the group’s 1966 concerts. Some might say that the music Coltrane was creating at this time should be seen less as an expression of the black community than as a product of the LSD which he regularly took before performing.

By the end of 1960s the New Wave was in decline, and many of its participants subsequently withdrew from music. Kofsky identifies several factors here – in particular the loss of the movement’s leading figure, with Coltrane’s premature death in 1967, and more generally the rightward shift of US society after the 1960s, which did not provide favourable conditions for revolutions, musical or otherwise. But it could also be argued that, by the time Coltrane died, the New Music had reached an impasse stylistically and had alienated the majority of its audience in the pursuit of total improvisational freedom. Tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, whom Kofsky rates second only to Coltrane as a hero of the jazz revolution, turned away from free improvisation in the late ’60s and began performing soul-influenced music in a vain attempt to win popular acceptance. When the next (and, it would now seem, the last) stylistic transformation of jazz, the so-called fusion movement, was launched by Miles Davis at the end of that decade, it drew much of its inspiration from "progressive" rock and owed relatively little to Coltrane’s innovations.

For my money, John Coltrane was a genius and almost everything he created bore the mark of greatness. But this does not remove the need for balanced criticism of his work. From the time that he adopted the "sheets of sound" approach in the late 1950s, as a means of overcoming the restrictions of chord-based playing, the intensity of his performances often trod a fine line between hypnotic and monotonous. The tendency became more notable in the early ’60s, when Coltrane progressed from chordal to modal improvisation, and increased still further with the free style of the late period. This is not to argue against experimentation and innovation, but rather to recognise that there was a price to be paid for increased improvisational freedom, in the weakening of formal structures and the potential loss of musical focus. The fact is that sometimes Coltrane’s experiments worked and sometimes they didn’t. It is surely possible for jazz critics, even white ones, to have a view on this, and to make negative judgments on certain aspects of Coltrane’s music, without necessarily demonstrating racist bias against African-American culture.

Although I find much of Frank Kofsky’s book quite irritating to read, there is no question but that he was on the right side, with his hatred of capitalism and his sympathy for the oppressed. Moreover, he was not afraid to put his political principles into practice. In the preface to the book, Kofsky refers to his long battle during the 1970s with his employers at the history faculty of California State University, who tried to deny him tenure on the grounds that he was "unduly pro-black". Although he eventually won this fight, in retaliation he was removed as a lecturer from the course on the history of African-American music which he himself had been responsible for introducing into the curriculum.

Nor would I deny that Kofsky’s "sociological" approach to music criticism could yield positive results. Chapter 3 of John Coltrane, "The forerunners resist establishment repression, 1958-1963", is an example of this. One of the best sections of the book, it provides a stirring account of the early challenges to racism by musicians such as Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln.

But, overall, the crude determinism of Kofsky’s analysis is counter-productive. If this is Marxist music criticism, I am forced to conclude, then I am not a Marxist music critic. A real study of the jazz revolution of the 1960s, of its musical innovations and its place in the broader social and political context of African-American history, remains to be written.

From What Next? No.14 1999